In the July 4, 2009, edition of the BBC World Service’s discussion program The Forum, Nobel physics laureate Frank Wilczek, author of The Lightness of Being, gave listeners a succinct description of the nature of the universe:
Close to the core of quantum mechanics is that you learn that seeing is a very active process. There are limitations to how much you can know about an object without disturbing it. This is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and when you get into the really subatomic realms, that becomes even more extreme. To observe the spontaneous activity in space, in a sense you have to create it. An analogy might be, beneath the surface there is lava boiling, or magma boiling. To get it out, to bring it to the surface, you have to actively intervene. And then it comes out, and in a sense you’re creating it on the surface.
These ideas-the conception of the universe as a seething, boiling magma, and the idea that we actively participate in the creation of the world we perceive-play a significant part in the philosophy of Greek-born Francophone thinker Cornelius Castoriadis, one-time Marxist, co-founder of the group Socialisme ou Barbarie, and the so-called “philosopher of autonomy.”
Castoriadis both read and wrote on a broad range of topics-mathematics, physics, biology, the social sciences, linguistics, the arts and humanities, popular culture-and did his best to stay on top of the latest developments in the hard sciences, so we should perhaps not be surprised to see such ideas so conscientiously applied in the construction of his philosophy (in contrast to the appropriation of scientific ideas by those literary and cultural theorists vilified by Alan Sokal). The encyclopaedic nature of Castoriadis’s oeuvre makes him a challenging thinker to summarise, however, and it is to Jeff Klooger’s immense credit that he successfully manages to do so here, ably tracing the pathways of Castoriadis’s thought and presenting them in a condensed but coherent form, choosing as his starting point Castoriadis’s theory of self-creation and pursuing its implications first for our understanding of society and history and then for our ideas about identity, the human body and psyche, the nature of Being and beings, and the meaning of meaning.
Based in part on the formal implications of a wholesale rejection of determinism and in part on his explorations of the diverse aspects of human existence, Castoriadis advances a radical and provocative approach to questions about the nature of being, incorporating an unequivocal acceptance of indeterminacy as characteristic of “being” in the human realm. As far back as Zeno, Parmenides, and Heraclitus, philosophers have been aware of the paradoxes inherent in the application of an identity logic to being: the logical impossibility of change, motion, and creation. Faced with the reality of change, creation ex nihilo, and impermanence, we are forced to either accept that the appearance of change is illusory or else accept an indeterminacy at the heart of being that traditional Western logic-ontology rejects as inconsistent with its definition of being. Castoriadis’s solution is to introduce the concept of magma, a mode of being in which indeterminacy is never absent. Wilczek’s comment above thus offers us a useful metaphor for thinking about being in general, as Castoriadis conceives of it. Both Being as a whole and individual beings, including human beings, are magmas, seething, boiling “masses” in which entities, ideas, forms are constantly being created, forcing their way to the surface, and then disappearing like a burst bubble into the ether. This metaphor can be usefully applied to the quantum physical world, to the biotic world of living animals, to the human psyche, and even to history.
This is not to say that the universe is characterized by chaos. A universe in which indeterminacy was ubiquitous would lack any kind of stability or permanence, the ontological equivalent of white noise, with no discernible forms at all. Indeed, the traditional Western logic-ontology would not be conceivable were it not for the fact that beings exhibit some semblance of permanence and stability. At different levels of being, entities persist, are stable, endure, for periods appropriate and relative to their scale: As evolutionary psychologists observe, the persistence of entities and our perceptions of them as such have to be adequate for our survival needs. An inability to perceive predators as enduring, stable entities in their environment undoubtedly places animals at a distinct disadvantage in the survival stakes. And mathematics becomes possible because we are capable of extrapolating from semi-permanence to create concepts with the appearance of permanence.
At the psychological and social levels, magmas and our involvement in self-creation are again central to Castoriadis’s ideas. Castoriadis draws on the not-uncontroversial work of the biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, particularly their concept of autopoiesis, to explain the human capacity for self-creation and autonomy. His background as a psychoanalyst results in a Freudian conception of the human psyche, however, that we might today regard as somewhat quaint; the mind as a seething, undirected collection of urges and drives, the conscious mind representing only the superego, the socialized, self-disciplined part of the psyche, managing and controlling the individual’s wilder impulses, generated by the lustful, aggressive, self-seeking id. The containment and control of such urges, in the traditional Freudian framework is the source of our neuroses, our dreams, our fantasies, but also our creativity. It thus fits in well with Castoriadis’s overall ontology, but it isn’t a framework that holds up so well these days in light of what we know now about cognitive development, particularly in children. Even so, the damage done is minimal. Here’s neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás discussing human creativity:
The neural processes underlying that which we call creativity have nothing to do with rationality. That is to say, if we look at how the brain generates creativity, we will see that it is not a rational process at all; creativity is not born out of reason.
Let us think again of our motor tapes in the basal ganglia. I should like to suggest to you that these nuclei do not always wait for a tape to be called up by the thalamo-cortical system, the self . . . In fact, the activity in the basal ganglia is running all the time, playing motor patterns and snippets of motor patterns amongst and between themselves-and because of the odd, re-entrant inhibitory connectivity amongst and between these nuclei, they seem to acts as a continuous, random, motor pattern noise generator. Here and there, a pattern or portion of a pattern escapes, without its apparent emotional counterpart, into the context of the thalamo-cortical system.
In other words, the constant firing and sparking of creativity goes on even while our conscious mind is otherwise engaged. When the spotlight of the conscious mind goes out, when we sleep or drift into semi-consciousness, we can access those noises, that bubbling of ideas always there beneath the surface. This might not be the creation ex nihilo that Castoriadis has in mind, but it keeps intact his idea of the human psyche as magma. In any case, the deficiencies in Castoriadis’s Freudianism do not significantly undermine his case for indeterminacy or for the role of autonomy in human affairs, and Klooger prudently devotes only a limited amount of space to this aspect of Castoriadis’s thought. Of greater significance is the “imaginary,” an aspect of the human condition, and of society and history, that traditional thought has always ignored, neglected, or failed to recognize. Acknowledging the importance of the imaginary, and of the imagination, means acknowledging creation as an essential part of the human condition; by creation, Castoriadis means the emergence of forms that are in no way determined by what preceded them.
For Castoriadis, society is, in its essence, a process of self-creation, an activity whereby societies bring themselves into being by the creation of social imaginary significations which they embody and around which they organize themselves. This is true of all societies, but only those societies, says Castoriadis, that recognize themselves as self-creating, who understand that their institutions and structures are not given from on high by the gods or pre-ordained by Nature, can be characterized as autonomous; its members have the capacity not just to reflect on, question, and challenge the legitimacy of their institutions, they can also go about actively formulating their own alternatives.
Such demystification of society is what took place in ancient Greece, where this transformation in consciousness gave rise to the birth of philosophy and democratic polis. It also occurred later, in the modern West, beginning in around the 12th century in autonomous city-states, but attaining its peak in modernity proper, where what Castoriadis calls the project of autonomy engages in a radical critique of the existing organization of society and the pursuit of the goals of individual and collective self-determination.
Castoriadis has been criticised for the supposedly ethnocentric underpinnings of this theory, for privileging Western culture and Enlightenment thought over alternative conceptions of philosophy and society, but as Klooger points out, identifying the project of autonomy with particular societies does not necessarily entail equating it to the concrete cultural and institutional expressions of it within those societies. That said, and as Klooger acknowledges, Greece was not alone in undergoing such transformative experiences. Other societies-those identified by Karl Jaspers as the axial civilizations, along with Greece-were undergoing their own revolutions in understanding. Says Jaspers,
What is new about this age, in all three of these worlds [i.e., China, India, and the Occident], is that man becomes aware of being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terrible nature of the world and his own impotence. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void, he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognizing his limits, he sets himself the highest goals. He experiences unconditionality in the depth of selfhood and in the clarity of transcendence.
Or perhaps we might say, more prosaically, in the Old Testament God is going around speaking unto everyone, whereas by the end of the Gospels not even Jesus is on speaking terms with him.
Klooger draws on the work of sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt on axial age civilizations to explore the challenges that their history poses to Castoriadis’s concept of heteronomous societies (i.e. those societies unaware of their own self-creation) and to contrast Eisenstadt and Castoriadis’s conceptions of the history and nature of self-reflexivity. The distinction is fine, but essentially Castoriadis’s definition of self-reflexivity entails the active questioning of established truths and norms, and not just mere incredulity towards them. It was only in ancient Greece, he contends, that this challenge takes place; only there are the two fundamental questions of philosophy-How ought we to live? and What, and how, ought we to think?-are asked for the first time.
Klooger does an excellent job of identifying the lacunae in Castoriadis’s work and spares no effort in teasing out the smallest of contradictions in what remains an impressive, coherent, and powerful intellectual edifice. Some of his objections, over terminology, for instance, may strike the reader as hair-splitting, but it’s also clear that he has laboured intensively to make sense of Castoriadis’s and to render it comprehensible for his readers. In his later writings, Castoriadis explored the threats posed to contemporary society by our declining awareness of its, our, self-creation and by the dominant social imaginary of our time, the unlimited expansion of rational mastery. These are topics outside the scope of Klooger’s work but provide a logical extension to it. Interested readers can find The Rising Tide of Insignificancy and Figures of the Thinkable available as free pdfs online. I highly recommend them.
Undergraduates who’ve paid attention in class, postgraduates under a certain age, and non-academic readers of an inquisitive bent and with an enthusiasm for philosophy will find this book invaluable as a challenging, provocative, and genuinely enjoyable introduction to a thinker whose ideas remain extraordinarily relevant and useful. Before engaging directly with Castoriadis’s own works, which can be intimidating in their intensity and vocabulary, students would do well to read Klooger’s introductory text. It is to be hoped that Brill can be persuaded to bring out a paperback edition in the near future. No one can realistically expect individuals to fork out €121 for a book, and this particular one is too important to be confined to the libraries of academic institutions.