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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

Cornelius Castoriadis reforms the philosophy of history

Gashkov Sergei Aleksandrovich

PhD in Philosophy

Docent, the department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, Baltic State Technical University named after D.F.Ustinov (“Voenmeh”)

196105, Russia, Leningradskaya oblast', g. Saint Petersburg, ul. Sevast'yanova, 4

Other publications by this author








Abstract: The subject of this research is the philosophical heritage of the prominent Greek-French philosopher, economist, and psychoanalyst Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997). The author gives particular attention to the plots of his works related to the problem of such philosophical interpretation of the historical process, in which context a human does not manifest as an alienated subject, but rather a conscious, creative being. Along the way, the philosopher faces Marxism, Sartre’s existentialism, and structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, subjecting them to critical analysis and defending similar principles, kindred to the Greek democratic traditions. Hi critically repels scientism, naturalism, individualism, Eurocentrism, functionalism, positivism and determinism, which in his opinion, obscure the true content of all three methods. The author explored a number of theses and texts of Castoriadis, in comparison with the texts of some representatives of Marxism (Plekhanov, Lenin), existentialism (Sartre), and structuralism (Lévi-Strauss, Althusser, Foucault). Leaning on the study of the evolution of French postwar thought, the author draws the independent conclusions on Castoriadis’ methodology. The scientific novelty consists in the attempt to portray Castoriadis as a unique reformer of the philosophy of history. The philosopher manifests not only as a consecutive critic of Marxism, existentialism and structuralism, but also as an independent thinker, who revived the dwindling interest towards the philosophy of history. It is underlined that the works of Castoriadis represent a cycle of studies on the philosophy of history; and in the center of the living historical process is collective creativity, the “magma” of social reality and social imaginary.


Castoriadis, philosophy of history, indeterminism, determinism, existentialism, structuralism, Marxism, functionalism, reform of science, role of individuals


The problem of alienation of the human knowledge and the degeneration of the cognition by objectivizing of the Being is very urgent in human sciences. The role of individuals in the history, the fact of human consciousness, are often forgotten in such disciplines as anthropology, biology, sociology etc. The man is represented by the objectivizing way as an object or an alienated thing.

“A reconstruction of the being by the objectivizing way leads to its objectivization… The role of modeling forms is played here by philosophical categories, but it is necessary to understand the impossibility of their application in an objectivizing way. In such a case, we risk losing all cognitive potential and our knowledge can degenerate to a formalism of alienated terms”, wrote A. Gizha. [5, 27]

We can quote a number of philosophers in XXth century that have tried to explain the risks of the alienation of the consciousness for human and social sciences. One of the most attractive figures is that of Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997), a French philosopher, psychoanalyst and economist from Greek origins.

In spite of some important differences, the thought of Castoriadis can be brought in comparison with that of Michel Foucault. Both French thinkers elaborated new approaches to the History through the re-evaluation of the evolution of important philosophical and scientific concepts: man, truth, language, society. As we showed in our paper the authors as Foucault tried to elaborate new heuristic methods in the philosophy of language and the history [3]. We proposed a conception of episteme as a basis of socio-linguo-philosophical ontology, just beyond the Foucauldian “archeology”. The common point of Castoriadis’s and Foucault’s philosophy of history is that they criticized the objectivizing (biological) concept of human Subject put as a productive center of the historical being. The main difference between them consists that Foucault neglected the human creative activity and Castoriadis emphasized it.

The Foucauldian thought is connected with the internal work of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. The roots of the Castoriadis’s thought are deeply connected with debates of theoreticians of Marxism about the relations of the materialist theory of the History and real historical processes [1],[4].

The aim of this paper is to try to put in question Castoriadis work from the point of view of the philosophy of History. What new meanings Castoriadis had created in the field of the reflections about the Sense of the human History? How did he reform the history of philosophy?

We think that Castoriadis tried to establish a new type of the materialist conception of the History, based upon the critical re-examination of work of Marxists, Existentialists and Structuralists. The main objects of his criticism are the functionalism, objectivism and naturalism. As Axel Honneth said, Castoriadis is a “auto-criticism of the Marxism’ [1, 120]. Although Castoriadis criticized the Marxism, he retains its main intention, which was to overlook the History from the point of view of the struggle of the working class. Castoriadis was polemical towards the Structuralism as the theory of universal sign system used as a core of objective knowledge of the society and History, but he retains its main intention too, which was to revivify the social sciences.

1. The Marxist conception of the history by Plekhanov and Lenin from the point of view of Castoriadis’ criticism

Before speaking about Castoriadis’s criticism of the Dialectical materialism, we should consider through the texts of materialist thinkers what the materialist conception of the History means. We can better understand what Castoriadis wrote if we look through the writings of his opponents and predecessors. We will not study here the genealogy of his thought, but just emphasize some leading ideas.

In his paper “The Materialist conception of the History” (1891) Georg Plekhanov opposed the Dialectical materialism to the economical materialism. He explains that the theory of social-historical factors is replaced by “a synthetic view of social life”. “This synthetic view of the social life is not peculiar to the dialectical materialism”, wrote he [6, 40]. He disagrees with Hegel in the point of the existence of the Universal Spirit. Nevertheless, he agrees with Hegel that there are not several distinct histories: history of law, history of morals, the history of philosophy etc., but there is only one history, “the history of their own social relations, which are determined by the state of the productive forces in each particular period.” [6, 45] Plekhanov said that “man makes his history not in order to march along a line of predetermined progress”. The man “does so in the endeavour to satisfy his own needs.” [6,46] And the objective of the science is just “to explain how the various methods of satisfying these needs influence man’s social relations and spiritual activity”, Plekhanov wrote.

So from the Castoriadis’ point of view this conception can be erroneous, because it considers the man only as a biological being unconsciously determined by the historical progress of the society. The man must nothing but satisfy his biological needs, the rest is considered as idealism. The materialist philosophy of history explains the whole of History from the point of view of satisfying of needs.

Lenin on his part insisted on the presence of objective laws in the human history. The main merit of Marx for Lenin is just to have realized an “objective study of history as a single process”, history “governed by definite laws”. [8, 50] Lenin does not contest the idea that “people make their own history”, but he asks himself about “what determines the motives of people, of the mass of people?”[8, 67] So, he is firstly concerned by the laws of the conditioning of human existence: “What are the objective conditions of production of material life that form the basis of all man’s historical activity? What is the law of development of these conditions?”

Castoriadis emphasized the fact the neither Hegel nor Marx have never placed themselves “outside” of History. On the contrary, they thought themselves as philosophers inside of the History. So, Castoriadis does not agree with these critics that pretend that Hegel or Marx considered the History only from the teleological point of view. The default of Marxist conception of History is not to follow Hegelian precepts as many Marxists thought. The danger is not the idealism, but the determinism, i.e. the pretention to establish scientific conception of the History and the society on the pattern of the natural sciences. Castoriadis thinks it is a sign of global Western tradition to represent the being only as the definite being (l’être-déterminé). To this traditional Western sense of definitive being he opposes the sense of Greek freedom and democracy.

The crucial word of Marx for Castoriadis is where Marx said men to be themselves creators of their own history. Castoriadis claimed the historical materialism is not to be confused with the history of technique. Castoriadis explains that as “a materialist conception of history is established, one that claims to explain the structure and the functioning of every society on the basis of the state of technique and the transition from one society to another by means of the evolution of this technique.”[9, 44] Thus men, no more make their own history but could be considered as a product of the Dialectic.

The crucial quote of Marx for Lenin or Plekhanov is that "an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself… on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production…”[8.90]. Castoriadis opposed to this these not only by words, but by his whole life. He actively participated at political struggle, practiced the philosophy and psychoanalysis. Thus he always tried to prove that the society is to know from the point of the socialization of the individuals.

2) 2. The Castoriadis’s philosophy of the history face to face with the existentialist conception by Sartre and structuralist conception by Levi-Strauss

The two most prominent philosophies of history of the XXth century in France were those of the existentialism and structuralism. Both of them criticized the rationalist conception of the Reason ruling the history common to Hegel and Marx.

Castoriadis in his work seems to reconcile the main achievement of both philosophies, in despite of his harsh criticism of these philosophers. In our opinion, Castoriadis created a larger theoretical basis for the philosophy of history, as Sartre or Levi-Strauss did it.

The idea of the late Sartre was to not only reconcile, but to “graft” the existentialism to the Marxism. In 1957 Sartre wrote an essay the Search for a Method became an Introduction to his project of the Critique of Dialectical Mind. Sartre wrote two volumes of this fundamental work: the first volume “The Theory of Practical Ensembles” appeared in 1960 and the second one “The Intelligibility of History” was published posthumously in 1985. In the Search for a Method, Sartre opposed to the habit to identify the Marxism with Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Sartre called Marxism “the philosophy of our time”. Why Marxism? Because Marxism is the only one materialistic realism of our time. “As soon as there will exist for everyone a margin of real freedom beyond the production of life, Marxism will have lived out its span; a philosophy of freedom will take its place. But we have no means, no intellectual instrument, no concrete experience which allow us to conceive of this freedom or of this philosophy”[13, 40]. Why we are not simply Marxists? Just because Marxists’ methods are universal and a priori. Marxism proceeds as bureaucracy do, it is perpetual movement toward identification. “For the majority of Marxists, to think is to claim to totalise and, under this pretext, to replace particularity by a universal. It is to claim to lead us back to the concrete and thereby present us with fundamental but abstract determinations” [13, 55], wrote he. Sartre thought the existential psychoanalysis will complete the Marxist materialism not only in the historical analyses, but in all “auxiliary human sciences”.

In the history of French thought the arrival of Levi-Strauss structuralism set a limit to the reign of the existentialism. “A great duel – wrote F. Dosse – will oppose the both sacred monsters of the French intelligentsia: Levi-Srauss and Sartre.” [12, 22] In his work “The Savage Mind”, Levi-Strauss criticized the addiction of Sartre to the idea of the History, arguing that the history is nothing but a myth. Consequentially, Levi-Strauss argued that it is time to abandon the philosophy of XIX century and to turn to the Man and anthropological structures. After him, it was Michel Foucault who developed structuralist criticism of the Reason, but even without the presence of the Man.

Criticizing Sartre, Levi-Strauss wrote that Sartre becomes prisoner of his Cogito (Reason). “Sociologizing the Cogito, Sartre merely changes one prison to another [14, 249]”. Postulating the opposition between myself and others, Sartre postulates the opposition between primitive and civilized people. In fact, Castoriadis also criticized Levi-Strauss of speaking about “primitives”: how we know that the primitive life is a base of our civilization? It can be we have different social significations and there is no common base such as a “human civilization” to bring them into the comparison. So, Castoriadis tried to show that Levi-Strauss is also a prisoner of the Cogito, because of his plain opposition of the Savage and Civilized Mind.

The Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason is commonly considered as his response to his former friend M. Merleau-Ponty after their rupture. Merleau-Ponty characterized the Sartre’s position as the “Ultra-Bolshevism”. Political positions of Sartre engendered arguments in the French Left. It is remarkable that the disciple of Merleau-Ponty and co-founder with Castoriadis of Socialism Claude Lefort roughly criticized Sartre in April 1953 in his paper “Marxism and Sartre”. Lefort argued that the historical Marxism is much larger then Sartre postulated it. Lefort and Castoriadis criticized the Sartrian revolutionary individualism, showing that Revolutions are made by revolutionary classes and not by individuals. Sartre answers to Lefort that the principal role belongs to the Party and not to the class. In his paper “Sartre, stalinism and workers” of the same 1953, Castoriadis on his turn defended the positions of Lefort, arguing that Sartre lacked the theory of proletariat, i.e. revolutionary class [2, 29-300].

In other words, it refers to the same discussion. Sartre takes on the role of a radical rationalist and individualist. He thought workers or "primitives" need revolutionary Party or civilized people to lead them. Castoriadis and Lefort thought proletarians or Indians have proper mind and in principle do not need to be led by someone else. Defending the Communists in the era of political phobies, Sartre said workers need their own Party. Castoriadis and Lefort said workers are a kind of a Party; they do not need a bureaucracy. In the era of late colonialism, Levi-Strauss defended “primitives”, saying they are the same mental bases with civilized people. Castoriadis and Lefort said they are not simply primitives, but they have a different culture.

The point in common by Sartre and Levi-Strauss that criticized Castoriadis was exactly their propensity to biologize the human being. A determinist tradition of thinking produced universal methods to treat human nature in the terms of “maximum amount of consumption” without caring about times and cultures. “And it is inadmissible to mix with the examination of history biological 'need' or the 'instinct' of self-preservation. Biological 'need' or the 'instinct' of self-preservation is the abstract and universal presupposition of every human society and of every living species in general, and it can tell us nothing about any one of them in particular”[9,19].

The point in common with Sartrians in the criticism of Levi-Strauss is by Castoriadis that the structuralism seems to be a total oblivion of the sense in the favor of the signs, semiotics taking place of semantics. The Structuralists tend to “forget” about the simple fact that there is a sense behind signs; a sense is not a combination of signs. “When, in the Oedipus myth, a structure consisting of two pairs of oppositions is elicited, a necessary condition (like the phonemic oppositions in language) for anything being said is probably posited. But what is said? Is it just anything at all -- that is to say, nothing at all? Is it indifferent here that this structure, this multiple-staged organization of particular signifiers.”[9,87] The combination of signs results from their meaning. The existence of a musicologist-structuralist is due to the existence of a creative musician.

In fact Castoriadis criticized here the rationalist a priori of the genesis of society, common to Marx, Levi-Strauss or Sartre. These a priori-principles seem always to lead to the naturalization of the dialectics. Claude Lefort also criticized the rationalist philosophy of History separating developed and undeveloped societies on the principles of the Reason. Following Castoriadis, the real source of human experience of the world is not rationality (nor irrationality), but radical imagination, giving meaning to human acts. We cannot think the structure of the society as just symbolic one, as Levi-Strauss seemed to do, Castoriadis said. In this case, we could not tell about individuals giving meaning to things. The rationalist a priori-principles give place to the dialectic. In the first volume of the “Critique of Dialectical Reason”, Sartre criticized the association by the Materialism of the dialectic with the dialectic of Nature, taking origin from Engels. In the same time, he puts the scarcity [rareté] as the basic rational and material principle of the dialectical genesis of the society. The man is the man of the need, praxis and scarcity, wrote Sartre, “the scarcity is contingent but fundamental relation of man to Nature”, “there is not enough place for everyone”. [13, 260] “It is amusing to see Sartre – Castoriadis remarks, - criticize at length the 'dialectic of nature' in order to end up, by means of the successive identifications, body =function = need = praxis = labour = dialectic, himself 'naturalizing' the dialectic”. [9, 252]

In this sense, Castoriadis and Sartre share with Marx the same idea: the history is created by its subjects, individuals as well as classes. But for Castoriadis, the history is a collective creation of meaning. Contrary to the Sartrian individualism, Castoriadis insists on the fact “that the human existence is an existence with the others”[9, 70]. Ironizing about the famous Sartre’s idea that the “Hell is others”, Castoriadis said, “the author of this statement no doubt certain that he had no trace at all of another within him.” [9, 243] The source of alienation is not other individuals, but institutions, Castoriadis said. In this sense, Castoriadis does not do so much distinction between what is called society and what is called history. He is speaking about the social-historical. But in some way it can be a repetition of the thought found by Levi-Strauss: there is not rational dialectic in the history or the history is not a dialectics of the Reason. But in difference of Levi-Strauss, Castoriadis sought to prove that we need to oppose rational and “primitive” significations in the history of a society. It would mean to impose external schemas to the life of every particular society, as to say that there are “primitive” and “civilized” societies.

3. Castoriadis and the philosophical question about the history

So, Castoriadis thought that we have not to ask how the rational significations give birth to the History, but how the historic-social can be constituted by both rational and imaginary significations. Castoriadis insists on the reality both of the psychological life of an individual and the collective life of the society. The reality of society can be nothing but social one. “Society is not a thing, not a subject, and not an idea – nor is it a collection of system of subjects, things and ideas… every relation between subjects is a social relation to social objects…” [9, 111]

But how the History can be possible “without” dialectics? It would be either the empirism or the organicism in the sense of Nietzsche, Spengler or Toynbee. The advantage and the problem of Marxism seem to be the only one scientific, non-idealistic theory of History. We are habituated that Marxist philosophy is considered as only one materialist philosophy of the History and the critics of Marxism must be reactionary and idealistic one. The specificity of Castoriadis approach is that he tries to criticize Marxism from the left. So, we can resume that the question is to prove that Marxism contains itself residues of idealism and positivist scienticism of XIX century and it must be replaced by a revolutionary theory of History in both scientific and social senses, if we speaking about the "change of minds" and not merely political changes. Existentialism and structuralism are both revolutionary theories in the human sciences that have changed the face of research in history, anthropology or linguistics. Their feeble point (that they share with Marxism) is to represent the revolutionary thinking only as a scientific theory in the form of objective laws of nature or culture. The post-modernist irrationalism, initiated by former companions of Castoriadis, such François Lyotard or Guy Debord, is also a form of thinking originating from rationalism by the way of pure negation of its basic principles. In this sense, Castoriadis developed the ideas of Greek socialists, also his former colleagues, such Alex Costas and Alex Papaioannou, trying to oppose to the Occidental sense of scientific mind, the Greek sense of living democracy.

Althusserian structuralist Marxism argued also in the terms of determination and superdetermination. In the difference of Sartrians or Althusserians, Castoriadis refuse to represent Marxism only as a theory, but as well as a practice. It is impossible to him to forget about of all kinds of “really existing” Marxisms: those of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao etc. The common point of all these national and real historical Marxisms are the bureaucratization of social life and the contempt for the needs of a concrete individual, reduced to a vital minimum and considered just as a mean of instauration of a future paradisiac society. In the difference of Levi-Strauss and Structuralism, Castoriadis has to see in the history not a series of structures, but autonomous creation through symbolization of social (and not only social) significations. In this sense, Castoriadis ask himself what is the social, unless a compulsory coexistence of an ensemble of individuals (as Sartre seemed to think). “We cannot think of the social as coexistence… we cannot think of it as a determinable ensemble of clear distinct and well defined elements. We have to think of it as a magma or magma of magmas, diversity exemplified by society, the imaginary or the unconscious”[9, 113]. The geological term of magma seemed to be used here to emphasize that we are not capable logically (i.e. in terms of our logical-ensemblist tradition of thinking) to reconstitute the real conditions under which social significations have been created.

What is the history? We can speak not only about global human history with its presumed laws. There are disciplines, “human sciences” that represent heuristic and innovative character and modify the concept of the history. Psychoanalysis pretends to understand the human life by studying the history of an individual under the forms of the unconscious. Economics pretends to calculate the future development of the markets on the base of the progressive growth of human economic interest in the history. Anthropology studies the different stages of developing of the human, trying to explain the reason why the modern society has certain rules. History of sciences tries to understand what the human knowledge is, and how it is historically organized. Political philosophy puts the question how the democracy is organized since Ancient Greece down to our days. It is well known that the thought of Castoriadis was present in all these domains. So we can suppose that Castoriadis’s project can be represented as a reform of the history in all these senses. The determinist thinking is altering the heuristic and innovative sense of researches in these domains. The historical method is often considered like just a determination, a system of reasons (economical, personal etc.) of human acting. Two French thinkers, Castoriadis and Foucault tried to describe the history of thinking not as that of human acting, but as an independent one.

Obviously, we can see that the history is not a progressive change in the past that lead to an ensemble of assured facts in the present. We are not observers of the history, but its actors. History is a real change that happens suddenly. In the “Crossroads in the labyrinth”, Castoriadis wrote that there is a massive fact that people forget about; it is an alternation of experiences, a history “in a hard sense of this term”[10, 10-12]. A philosophical (and not only epistemological) question is to put about the history of a science. Castoriadis emphasized that in XXth century there were changes in the sciences themselves that made specialists doubt about the existence of a physics or a mathematics. From the point of view of Castoriadis, the real pretention of the structuralism was not to resolve the philosophical question about the truth in history, but to avoid it. In fact, the bureaucratization of society and the technologization of science do not mean the End of Philosophy or History, as Heidegger or Fukuyama thought, but are also philosophical and historical phenomena.


We can resume that the aim of Castoriadisian philosophy of the History is to make understand the fact that the human consciousness exists in the History and it cannot be replaced by a transcendental subject, an absolute Being. His target is here the deterministical logic where there is always a transformation and “interpenetration” of contingency and necessity, nature “inside” and “outside” the human being etc. Castoriadis doubts about the necessity to found (fonder) the truth or the freedom in the history. As already Raymond Aron showed that the historical methods do not permit to think the evil in the history: Auschwitz or Gulag. It is possible to analyze its historical reasons, political coherence, but it is impossible to think the evil in the history. Castoriadis added that the question is not to just understand, but to struggle with the evil. From this point of view, every dialectics which tries to prove that the evil was necessary is deeply idealistic one. So, Castoriadis postulates that the non-idealistic dialectic to create aims to investigate the living history. Castoriadis wrote:

“A ‘non-idealist’ dialectic must also be a ‘non-materialist’ dialectic, in the sense that it refuses to posit an absolute Being, whether as idea, as matter, or as the de jure already given totality of all the possible determinations. Such a dialectic must eliminate notions such as closure and completion, and reject all finite world systems. It should set aside the rationalist illusion, seriously accept… that all rational determination leaves a non-determined and non-rational residue, that the residue is just as essential as what has been analysed… a fact that consciousness cannot itself produce, either really or symbolically. It is only on this condition that a dialectic can really envisage living history, which a rationalist dialectic is obliged to kill before it can lay it out on the benches of its laboratories.” [11, 15]

If we take as an example, as Castoriadis himself did, the history of Russian Revolution of 1917, we must think about the roles of individuals. The response of Trotsky to the question why in such historical situation emerge these characters of people (Nicolas II, Lenin etc.) is rather sociological one, Castoriadis wrote. There is no ground to positively affirm that in similar sociological conditions history produces similar characters. It is sure that without Lenin the revolution could not have been completed, Trotsky assumed it. But, the revolution needed also Rasputin, absurdities of the Court, Kornilov, Prince Lvov, Kerensky, German General Staff… Moreover, there are no guarantees that such persons as Lenin or Trotsky could be born and physically survive until the moment of Revolution and were in Petrograd in the right moment. So in the case of a historic retrospection we have to do with rationalization of this singular "real-imaginary event" (the term is ours) as Revolution is. On contrary, speaking about the birth of bureaucracy is not a rationalization, because this process is sociological and does not depend on individuals.

[1] We had explicitly investigated the genealogy of Castoriadis’ thought in a monograph edited in French.[2]

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