Castoriadis and the Question of Truth

IWMPost Article

In a time of “post-truth” and “fake news,” when the question of what is true and what is not keeps arising, Cornelius Castoriadis’s epistemology—placing the problem of truth at the heart of social-historical procedures but also refusing to reduce truth to an arbitrary social construction—gains new relevance.

Cornelius Castoriadis (1922–1997) is mostly known for his contributions in the fields of radical political philosophy and psychoanalysis. From his early writings as a co-founding member of the Socialisme ou barbarie review, in which he criticized in depth the regime in the Soviet Union as “bureaucratic capitalism,” to his mature work on social imaginary, psyche, autonomy, and direct democracy, Castoriadis always tried to conceive society as a special type of being and to elucidate the indissociably collective and subjective preconditions of human freedom.

Dealing with the question of truth was a crucial moment in this intellectual endeavor. Nevertheless, this particular side of the Castoriadean oeuvre is not widely known. Highlighting the epistemological aspects of Castoriadis’s philosophy can be quite fruitful at a time when the problem of truth emerges often and dramatically from several directions and in various forms.

Nowadays, societies are characterized by an ambivalent attitude toward truth. On the one hand, a consensus regarding the non-absolute nature of factual claims seems to have been established, in parallel with the proliferation of digital media and informal sources of information. On the other, political forces and social actors constantly try to show that their opponents’ claims are false and to prove the truthfulness of their own ones. The never-ending discussions over “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and “post-truth” are quite telling in this respect.

Could the Castoriadean philosophical concepts help in dealing with this conundrum? At the core of Castoriadis’s social ontology is the idea of social imaginary. Apart from the imagination of individual subjects, there is also a collective form of imagination that incessantly creates significations. These social imaginary significations bestow life and the world with meaning. Furthermore, they are embodied in each society’s institutions, guiding collective and individual action and providing each social structure with its uniqueness and specificity. Examples of such fundamental imaginary significations can be found in the ancient Greek representations of Chaos and Cosmos, in the image of God-creator in Christianity, in the Hinduistic notion of Karma, and in the capitalist imperatives regarding limitless growth and rational control over life on this planet.

All these significations, which in various times and social worlds have oriented human actions and led to divergent institutional creations, share a common feature: they do not stem from a uniform human reason, nor do they emanate from a common moral ground or the nature of “reality as such.” Quite the contrary: it is exactly these significations that determine what is to be considered rational or irrational, natural or abnormal, moral or immoral, and right or wrong within the frames of each society. Moreover, they shape the institutions (for example, school, sexual codes, and tribunals) that realize this consideration. This is precisely what the title of Castoriadis’s magnum opus, The Imaginary Institution of Society, indicates.

According to Castoriadis, imagination and reality are not juxtaposed but rather intertwined; the imaginary is a constitutive element of the real. Furthermore, he describes the social imaginary as radical, meaning that the perpetual creativity and spontaneity characterizing it are irreducible. Social imaginary is not dictated by nature but rather shapes nature. This is why so dissimilar worldviews, institutions, and anthropological types are to be found in different societies and eras.

There are, however, some limits that the radical creativity of the imaginary encounters. Among the most significant is what Castoriadis calls the first natural stratum. This is a kind of pre-social substrate that social institutions “run into” and are obliged to “take into consideration.” Institutions are not determined by it; rather, they find in it supports, obstacles, handles, and impediments that must be dealt with. Social institutions transform all these in a creative way, but they cannot completely disregard them.

A practical example of this can be found in the social-historical institution of food. In different societies, which may even use the same means of production and live under similar geographical and ecological conditions, the animals and plants that are considered edible vary. Indeed, it is quite common that the gastronomic choices of one culture causes disgust to people belonging to other ones. What we eat is not “natural”—the specific content of nutrition is determined through the social imaginary. Nevertheless, the imaginary has to take some boundaries of human biology into consideration: if we do not consume a certain quantity of calories for a certain time period, we will die, while there are substances that make us fall sick when we eat them.

This ontological notion of the first natural stratum is of great importance for Castoriadis’s epistemology. He conceives knowledge as part of social-historical action, making the point that each society creates its own criteria for right and wrong, along with its proper categories for thinking and organizing reality. However, this idea does not lead Castoriadis to a completely constructivist conceptualization of truth and knowledge. The reason for this is that various forms of knowledge—including scientific theories—must somehow correspond to the first natural stratum, something that raises certain demands and poses certain limitations.

This means that there is not one single way to approach truth; as already noted, the creations of social imaginary, which include scientific creations, too, are radical and are not immediately dictated by the reality of nature. However, truthful epistemic creations can be discerned from the creativity of a delirium, for example, on the ground that they lean on, find support in, and successfully coordinate with certain elements of the natural world that exists “out there.” Moreover, one could argue that the richer and the more fruitful a certain form of knowledge is, the more suitable it becomes to correspond with and “take into account” more strata or areas of the being. This perhaps explains how it is possible to find at various times and across all civilizations correct, although not equally comprehensive, conceptions of the world, which all started from radically different premises.

The thoughts developed and the examples given so far seem to only refer to a rather limited conception of truth, namely claims regarding natural and biological “data” as well as their social-historical “transformation.” While this conception can be useful when it comes to problems such as the severity of a virus, it leaves open the question of truth concerning historical and social phenomena as such. Paradoxically, this topic remains rather underdeveloped in Castoriadis’s writings. However, in some of his late texts he holds that past cultural creations form a sort of sociohistorical sedimentation, which cannot be treated as “indeterminate material.” Cultural traditions and historical events are constantly and creativily reinterpeted but cannot be described or manipulated arbitrarily—they have to find support in the sedimentated stock of the past.

Castoriadis never subscribed to any form of epistemological relativism, although he always stressed the variety, the abundance, and occasionally even the incompatibility of cultural creations coming from different civilizations and eras. Unlike, for example, Michel Foucault, who focused on the political and power implications of discourses on truth but in a way that the question of what is true becomes rather irrelevant, Castoriadis tried to find a fecund balance between the political, social, and cultural determinants of knowledge and the necessity of developing valid criteria for it.

While knowledge is socially produced, it aims nevertheless at encountering and thematizing what is not entirely reduced to the sociocultural context and the power relations of each time. It is in this sense that Castoriadis defines truth as a movement that breaks through enclosure and entrenchment, not only in already existing narratives and inherited views but also in the social environment of oneself, in our very own bubble, in the already used paths and methods of thinking, which must be penetrated in order to meet with the other, the new, the different, the still unknown, and the up-to-now inconceivable.

Yannis Ktenas is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Sociology, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. He was a guest at the IWM in 2023.