Статья 'Subject and History: Thinking Modernity with Castoriadis in Polemical Context (Heidegger, Ricoeur, Habermas)' - журнал 'Philosophical Thought' - NotaBene.ru
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Philosophical Thought

Subject and History: Thinking Modernity with Castoriadis in Polemical Context (Heidegger, Ricoeur, Habermas)

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

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Abstract: The paper considers the specific lines of the ontology of Cornelius Castoriadis in a triple context of his thought: polemics with Heidegger and Ricoeur, but also the reception of Castoriadis' project of modernity by Habermas. The author aims to elucidate historical-philosophical meaning of these debates and receptions through the special problems of the philosophy of history: teleology, succession, determination, creation, innovation, re-production, memory and imagination. The author used hermeneutical and intertextual analyse as methods. The results of authors' work are as follows: 1) author showed that Castoriadis polemized with some cases of reception of Heidegger's thought, especially in regard of Ancient Greek civilization, 2) author showed the limits of Castoriadis' thought: his radical atheism, social monadism, refusal to think communication, 3) author showed also the advantages of Castoriadis' thought of history: his multiculturalism, his claim to restaure genuine philosophy and democracy, critics of determinism, scientism, cultural egoism.


Castoriadis, Heidegger, Ricoeur, Habermas, subject, history, polemics, history of philosophy, philosophy of history, creation

Scholars stress that the modernity has two contradictory but interrelated trends of development: global processes of reification of individuals and individualization of the society [13]. In this sense, the thought of Castoriadis - entirely devoted to the research of ways to militate against reification, alienation of individuals and objectification of the society and history - is very important. The modernity seems to be an agglomeration of self-sufficient and alienated individuals. Castoriadis seems to try to breathe life to forgotten notions as society and historical subject. Through his anthropological ontology, he tries to reconnect the modern subject with historical origin of the modern thought in the aim to make every individual conscious about his situation. In this way he encounters some other eminent thinkers of his time: Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, Foucault and Sartre, Lévy-Strauss and Lacan, Ricoeur and Habermas, and others. Polemics and divergences with them form a specific context for understanding Castoriadis’ thought in a better way.

1. Castoriadis versus Heidegger: teleology, Being and Greeks

Philosophers often represent History as a teleological system. The final point of History can be seen as progressive and optimistic (Hegel or Marx) or as regressive and pessimistic (Heidegger or Fukuyama). According to Castoriadis, the pessimism of both last philosophers consists in their faith in the end of philosophy. Against such interpreters of Hegelian thought as Kojève, Castoriadis wrote we must take the thesis of the end of philosophy “seriously”, because it is a “central intention” and “key pillar” of his system [2].

The idea to confront the Hegelian system of the philosophy of history with the modernity seems to be a point of departure for Castoriadis’ thought. If we adopt the idea that the History has a rational ending, the pessimistic end of History drawn by Fukuyama shows the History had never any sense at all, Castoriadis wrote. The histories of philosophy by Hegel and Heidegger both seem to have much in common in this sense, because they both make impossible to criticize philosophers of the past. Every philosopher of the past is considered by Heidegger or Hegel as a “voice of the Being itself”, Castoriadis said [4]. In the history of philosophy it seems to be no real contradictions, nor conflicts at all. All the History seems to represent a regressive line untill the “Forgetting of the Being”, ending by the accomplishment of metaphysics and the figure of Heidegger himself, Castoriadis said [4].

From our point of view, Castoriadis does not criticize Heidegger himself, but the way his thought was used in the practice of French universities of this time. The schemas of Heidegger were often used by professors or scholars for the interpretation of Greek philosophy. A strong connection between philosophy, poetry and politics in the life of Ancient Greece is omitted in this interpretation. Heidegger like Hegel considers a philosopher as a meaning giver of the time. In his “History of the Philosophy”, Hegel draws a complex “geometrical” schema of the Greek philosophy, but Heidegger defines his interpretation only “in four fundamental words”: εν (being) of Parmenides, λογος (reason) of Heraclites, ιδεα (idea) of Plato and ενεργεια (energy) of Aristotle [8]. Heidegger noticed that Hegel passed by the Greek definition of the truth as αληθεια, unconcealedness [8]. Truth for Hegel is nothing but absolute certainty of the absolute Subject, Heidegger said. In his turn, Castoriadis affirms that Heidegger was wrong saying the Being for Greeks was just a presence. The Being for Greeks was a determination, Castoriadis said [1]. The great lines of this discussion seem to be as follows: Heidegger criticizes Hegel for the absoluteness of the Subject of History, but Castoriadis in his turn discusses the anonymous and mysterious subjectivity of History drawn by Heidegger. Determination or nomos in Greek means to give reason to be. In this sense, the Being means social-historical human being. So the Subject and History have by Castoriadis a fundamental anthropological side.

So, what is philosophy? In this sense, Castoriadis is rather agree with Hegel that philosophy is a thinking of key notions of knowledge, society and politics at once, but he is rather agree with Heidegger that there is no absolute truth at all. And his own point of view consists in considering the philosophy as a challenge in face of “traditional” social significations. But, is there really just question of a choice between innovation and tradition? Usually the thought of this left thinker is reduced to a kind of ideology of innovations. But how we can talk about Greek democracy, if we know that in “innovating” polis were slaves, imperialism, inequity [12]?

From our point of view, Castoriadis is not any kind of ideologist. We think he never postulates the priority of innovation on tradition, but during his lifelong studies of philosophy he problematizes the field of relationship between subject and history, nomos and physis, Chaos and Cosmos, einai (being) and phainesthai (appearing). During the seminar 23 February 1983 Castoriadis affirms that three philosophical oppositions ειναι/φαινεσθαι (being/appearing), φυσις/νομος (nature/institution), αληθεια/δοξα (truth/opinion) are not really oppositions, but the ways of early Greek philosophy to show itself [1, p. 204]. We can conclude that Castoriadis (like Hegel or Heidegger) begins with the priority of philosophical thought.

2. Castoriadis versus Ricoeur: succession, imagination, creation

Philosophers as well as historians think History as a succession of events. We must stress that all historical events in the past are to be considered as “accidental”. So, they have a reason in something other than themselves. People think the succession is achieved by the present but open to the future. So, only the future is a part of the succession of accidental events not undetermined per se, but by our imagination. So, even if some theoreticians speak about the autonomous will, it cannot be but a paradox: the succession per se does not give any condition to create something new in the history, all is accidental and determined by other events, facts and “laws”. From our point of view, there is a dilemma: either we think the history as a succession and so there is no subjective will, or we think the history as events without laws and successions and there are autonomous individuals, but it is not really a history, just a historicity, which we meet by Foucault. So, in history we have to think two kinds of incompatible things together: subjective will and succession of accidental events, creation and production, autonomy and heteronomy.

P. Ricoeur did not have in sights to create a philosophy of the history, but in his “History and Truth” (1954, 1962) he was rather interested in the problem of objectivity of historical knowledge as opposed to natural sciences. He associated the history with the subjectivity of a historian, meantime Castoriadis and Lefort tried to think the History after Merleau-Ponty as intersubjectivity. Just as Castoriadis did, Ricoeur opposed himself to the connection between philosophy of the history and history of the philosophy. “Does it mean that philosophy exists and continues to exist only by means of a history which philosophers make…” he asks [10, p.41]. In this sense there are no philosophies, but every philosopher just paves the way for his successors. Also, Castoriadis wondered why in this case we continue to read and discuss Plato and Aristotle. Castoriadis criticized not only accumulative model of science, also Foucault’s concept of episteme, saying the knowledge could be locked in any particular structure alienated from the social life of its time.

In this sense Castoriadis used Ricoeur’s theory of two kinds of time: objective (time by Aristotle, Hegel or Newton’s physics) and subjective (time by Saint-Augustin, Kant, Husserl or Heidegger): philosophy lacks a concept of social, factual time, he said. Castoriadis and Ricoeur have more much in common. Both philosophers criticized the historicism, technocracy and totalitarism. Scholars notice that both of them see the foundations of anthropology in Homo loquax (speaking man) and not Homo faber (working man) [9]. The most important difference between both philosophers consisted in the notion of imagination. Ricoeur confronted Plato’s conception of image’s domination upon memory with Aristotle’s conception of memory’s domination upon images. [11] So, he was interested more in veracity of the historical memory. Castoriadis found in Aristotle’s “Peri psyche” (About the Soul) two kinds of imagination: “radical” and “symbolical”. The “radical” imagination that Kant, Fichte and early Hegel called as creative imagination was specified by Romantism in its alienated form as only artists’ capacity. Even Heidegger in his “Kant and Problem of metaphysics” could not recover the full value of creative imagination. “The Kantian imagination always stays subjective imagination […] and I try think the social imagination, the creativity of some social field, that of the social collective as such”, said Castoriadis [2].

The public discussion about History and imagination between Castoriadis and Ricoeur took place and was broadcast in March 1985. At this time Ricoeur was 72 years old and published his major work “Time and narrative” and Castoriadis was 63 years old and published his major work “The Imaginary Institution of Society”. Ricoeur could not accept Castoriadis’ conception of creative imagination. By imagination Ricoeur means just reproduction (image of some non-existing thing) that he opposed to production (creating of new things). Castoriadis insisted that the production is just a combination of existing meanings, but he tells about the imagination as a creation of new meanings, constituted by human collectives, just as Greek polis was. Castoriadis insisted that it could be impossible to think Greek polis as just a reconfiguration of existing meanings. “What institutes polis as polis is the meaning it creates and through this meaning it creates itself as polis”[3, 42]. Ricoeur argues we must think something new in a more dialectical way, it could be impossible without previous things, without the continuity of the life-in-common. Castoriadis argues that dialectics could be sometimes wrong as a method: Europeans have destroyed the Aztec civilization, but does it mean the Aztec civilization was overcome?

But how to think this novelty? Perhaps it is a kind of epistemes’ ruptures which were investigated by Foucault? Also, Ricoeur cites debates about Foucault’s “Archeology of knowledge”: Foucault probably was right to find the ruptures in biology, linguistics and economics. But it does not mean anyway ruptures in the social history. In his turn, Castoriadis directly criticized Foucault’s epistemology.

From our point of view, Castoriadis tries to find an alternative way to think History, different from rationalist tradition [5]. Ricoeur, Castoriadis or Foucault have as a point of departure the crisis of Hegelian philosophy of the history, built on the rationalist (dialectical) model of civilization. Foucault and Ricoeur fulfill the philosophy of history oriented only toward rationalist civilization. But Castoriadis insists that from the point of view of social imagination all human civilizations have created something new, fundamentally different from each other, and no dialectics can be possible.

3. Castoriadis and Habermas: collective subject, modernity, communication

The philosophy of the subjectivity is in principle exclusive, i.e. it means a specific relation of an individual to the truth. Remember, that the subjectivity was definited by Merab Mamardashvili as a “second birth” (for the thought). Michel Foucault studied the phenomena of the historical birth of the subjectivity as examplified in medieval Christian confessions and penitential practices. The relation to others was in the core of phenomenological problematic of intersubjectivity from Husserl to Merleau-Ponty. But, it is no doubt that in this intersubjective relation there is question about the truth. In this sense, Habermas postulates the communication can be true or wrong. In this sense, Habermas seems to have right that the social life cannot be complete without an intermediary. First of all, the problem of the intermediation appears in the spheres of the science, moral and art, wrote Habermas. The role of a mediator – a philosopher, an artist, - in the society is first of all – hermeneutical and pragmatical one. [7]

Habermas circumstantially analyses the major work of Castoriadis in his “The Philosophical Discourses of Modernity” (1985). He represents Castoriadis’s as well as Foucault’s philosophy both as two alternative projects of the modernity in the condition of the crisis of the classical European subject known by philosophical systems by Schelling and Hegel. Against the background of the tradition claiming the destruction of the metaphysical subject going from Nietzsche to Heidegger and Derrida, Foucault and Castoriadis both try to think the alternative ways out of the philosophy of the subject. By Foucault, the intersubjectivity, the communication is to be considered by the model of confrontations, his investigations become a theory of the power. In this sense, Foucault (as Nietzsche or Heidegger) was searching the way out the transcendental subject in the other of the subject (Unconscious, Nothing, Madness etc.). By Castoriadis, the society and the transcendental subjectivity is “split into the generating and generated, the instituting and instituted [6, p. 318]”, Habermas wrote. Castoriadis seems to avoid the dual threats of Scylla and Charybdis of the subjectivism and the anti-subjectivism, speaking about the collective subject instituting and creating the social significations.

But the notion of the collective subjectivity is an antinomy, Habermas said. This demiurgical subjectivity has to be constituted only by the existential decision of a group of individuals. This can be considered as the main point of the polemics of Habermas against Castoriadis’ theory of the collective subjectivity. Castoriadis argues that the ontological difference exists not between social classes themselves, but between the egoistic constituted psychological monad and constituting social significations in the process of psychogenetic constitution of a social-historical individual. So, the problem is “one cannot see how this demiurgic setting-in action of historical truths could be transposed into the revolutionary project proper of the praxis of consciously acting, autonomous, self-realizing individuals [6, p.318]”.

In other words there is a paradox. We can add that the early Castoriadis encounters the same problem, speaking about the October revolution and the role of the bureaucracy (“apparat”) of Bolshevik party. If the October revolution had been only a movement of workers’ masses, it could have been done without any “vanguard of the class”, but in the reality it could not be made without Bolshevik party that thereafter has given birth to the Soviet bureaucracy (Castoriadis considered "apparat" as a new exploitative class, whether it was right or wrong). Marx thought that for revolutions are needed sufficient social conditions, certain degree of evolution of industry and that of the consciousness of workers as a class. Nevertheless, Castoriadis thought the October revolution was made by proletarians for the sake of working classes. So, from the point of view of his conception, the leaders of the Russian revolution appear as philosophers in the cave of Plato. But the rest of people cannot be blind by definition! “Who is the subject of this knowledge?” – Habermas asks.

Anyway, Habermas sees the Castoriadis social theory as a philosophy of praxis but there is no place for communication. Castoriadis starts from the contradiction between living and dead labor, Habermas wrote. The cooperation of “self-governing” industrial workers serves as a model for “autonomous” society. [6]. For Castoriadis, the ontological difference between a psychological monad and social significations is to be surmounted by a demiurge, bearer of the content of socialism. He seems ignore the presence of intersubjective communications in the Lebenswelt of men, not connected with the industrial production or praxis (educational, medical, pedagogical and political, after Aristotle and Castoriadis).

So, from our point of view, Habermas has right to remember the societies need communication, there is a need of figures of communication (artist, preacher, philosopher) lacking in both Castoriadis' and Foucault’s conceptions of modernity. It seems to us, there are some limits of Castoriadis' thought: he insisted upon his radical atheism and social critics, so his conception of creativity of the historical subject is demiurgical and the difference between two kinds of work is fundamental, that excludes a field of creative work of social communication (artist, preacher, poet or philosopher).


First of all we can stress some intertextual moments that make the ontology of Castoriadis more clear thanks to our comparison of his work with three other thinkers.

1) With Heidegger he seems to share ontological difference, but he did not make it between the being (das Sein, l’être) and beings (das Seiende, l’étant), as Heidegger did, he makes it between different ontological levels of beings. Some scholars remark that the “political ontology” of Castoriadis and Lefort is in continuity with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology [14]. In this sense, the Castoriadis work is considered as “post-transcendental phenomenology”, radicalizing some theses of early Heidegger. In fact, the social-historical being is to be considered not as a heritage of Marxism, but as a radicalization of the Being in the sense of a regional being. In this sense, Castoriadis’ thought is to be considered as a kind of Neo-Romantic critic of the Neo-platonic turn of Heidegger’s later phenomenology. So, Castoriadis polemics against Marxian technocracy and scientific determinism is to be considered as an analogue of the “forgetting of the Being” in Heidegger’ sense, without the social pessimism and political indifferentism of the German thinker.

2) With Ricoeur he has also much in common: his approaches to the social reality are hermeneutical, but his sees hermeneutics as a kind of philosophy of life (Lebensphilosophie): for this reason he stresses more than Ricoeur such phenomena as imagination, factual time, birth of civilizations, anthropological diversity, that have no such an importance for a phenomenologist. Some scholars remark that the “political ontology” of Castoriadis and Lefort is in continuity with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. N. Poirier remarks that against a background of such left philosophers as Badiou and Zizek, Castoriadis thought is much more coherent. [14, p. 11] These left thinkers are mostly preoccupied by the critic of the occidental democracies in the face of the abstract idea of Communism, when Castoriadis tries to elaborate the positive conception of modern democracy on the base of democratic traditions of Ancient Greece.

3) Habermas has the merit to explain which place Castoriadis’ work takes in the philosophical reflection upon the modernity. Habermas made a comparison between the works of Castoriadis and Foucault. These thinkers seem to be complementary: the one considers the technics and technologies of the power, the other tells about the ways of emancipation. So, some scholars have difficulties to explain why Foucault disregarded psychoanalysis and the problem of freedom. But in fact, Foucault is rather to be considered as a kind of modern critic of the Romantism from the point of view of the Enlightment. In his part, Castoriadis ignored the rationalist thought of Descartes and Locke, focusing of the summary representation of Hegelian-Marxian global philosophy of the History. In this sense, Foucault and Castoriadis seem to talk about different things: the both parting from the Kant’s Ontology of Heidegger. Foucault focused upon the problem of transcendental-empirical duality of the man and Castoriadis upon the transcendental creative imagination. Foucault seems to concentrate upon positive historical data, the “metaphysics” of the past of the rationality and Castoriadis upon the “metaphysics” of the future of the social emancipation of men.

The common conclusion we could make is that the debates on the modernity in the post-war philosophy show us that the potential of rationalist and subjective philosophy are not finally exhausted. Philosophers as Castoriadis make return to the problems put by the classical thought not only in the aim of “destruction”, but more to elucidate the conditions of possibility to think history and subjectivity again.

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