Social Imaginaries

Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2015

Cornelius Castoriadis, Johann P. Arnason
Pages 59-69

The Imaginary as Such

This text is a draft introduction to a planned work on imagination in society and history. It begins with reflections on the abilities and activities that set human subjects apart from other living beings and thus at the same time enable the ongoing creation of society and history. This is to be understood as an exploration within the ‘order of facts’, on the level of anthropological preconditions. The most elementary precondition is the human capacity to add an ‘unreal extension’ to reality, and thus to put the latter at a distance; considered as an activity, this is what defines the imagination, but considered as a dimension of human existence, it is the realm of the imaginary. The two concepts are strictly complementary. To clarify their role in the proposed rethinking of social-historical being, we must link them to closer analysis of the latter’s two main components, representing and doing. On both sides, Castoriadis emphasises the imaginary element as a decisive point against empiricist and rationalist reductions. Representing is as irreducible to perception as it is to thinking, and taking the argument one step further, both perception and thinking can be shown to be dependent on the imaginary. Similarly, on the level of doing, human action can neither be understood as a response to given needs nor as an application of pre-given representations; its creative potential presupposes an imaginary horizon. Finally it is argued that language – closely related to both representing and doing – has an imaginary dimension, central to the emergence and the enduring innovative capacity of meaning. The basic flaw of structural linguistics was its refusal to take the imaginary source into account.