Cornelius Castoriadis

Last updated, 20 Aug 2014

Cornelius Castoriadis - Legendary obscurity and possible contributions to CMS

by Vitor Hugo Klein Jr. (


       Cornelius Castoriadis is one of the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century, a genuine Selbstdenker* (see Whitebook, 1998). Along his original philosophy we need to consider his obscurity, for he remains largely unaccounted for by organization studies generally and CMS particularly**. Castoriadis was very influential to the student activism of ‘68 in France through the works published in the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie. He was a critic of capitalism, but also of Marxism, which he judged inadequate for explaining contemporary problems; Marx incurred in a series of shortcomings characterized, according to Castoriadis, by technological determinism and doctrinal economics (Castoriadis, 1984). In short, the scientism and determinism present in Marxian theory precluded individual and collective creativity, action and self-management, a position antithetical to the very revolutionary project proposed by Marx.

Castoriadis was also a trained psychoanalyst who made contributions to Freudian theory (Urribari, 2002) and who was engaged in debates with Lacanism already in the 60s disagreeing with its structuralist roots (Stavrakakis, 2007). This makes his obscurity within organizational literature even more awkward, since psychoanalysis has been used for critical analysis of society and organizations already for a relatively long time and especially because Lacanism has been recently celebrated in this field (Contu, 2010). Despite his critique of structuralism and functionalism, Castoriadis does not fit poststructuralist or postmodernist labels, but rather offers an alternative to the intellectual tendencies emerging after 1968, like those offered by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. The central claim in his works is the ontological role of imagination, an element largely veiled by the long philosophical tradition of Western thought, which he reworked under the concept of the imaginary (Castoriadis, 1987). But going to the infamous “So what?” question, what is the importance of this widely neglected element in traditional modes of thought? 

It first implies that humans are primarily creative beings; creation is a powerful element in how we constitute our world, in how we construct the meanings we engage with. Creation requires us to acknowledge the indeterminacy of social and historical life, an understanding that most postmodern thinkers indeed share, but an understanding on which Castoriadis casts novel lights and contentions. Human life, following his claim, is centered on the idea that creation involves two basically interdependent forces: psyche and society, which “are at the same time conflicting and complementary; they engage in an often fraught and tension-ridden co-operation, a tenuous accommodation which never results in true peace and harmony” (Klooger, 2009: 5). Conflict, therefore, is pivotal in all social systems; but also creativity, since change necessary emerges from creation through the positing of new meanings by the psyche. Creativity is thus surrounded by conflict and the political stands at the core of history making and changing, rooting society’s indeterminacy to the very same source, namely, unbridled imagination. Taking his intellectual oeuvre and conceptual apparatus, Castoriadis might contribute to CMS in at least three ways: a) offering an extended account of the imaginary; b) adding new interpretations of the interplay between the individual and the social; c) approaching the political component within the very core of theorizing. Let us see what it means.  

Firstly, his account of the social imaginary might contribute to a novel understanding of meanings, either unveiling ideologies underlying the materiality of institutions, but also tracking a different chain of representations in its transformational and emergent fashion. In this matter, his notion of imaginary differs from that defended by Lacan, since Castoriadis developed “a nonstructuralist theory of the sign and of the symbolic” (Joas and Meyer, 1989: 1185). His conceptual vocabulary regarding the imaginary is richer than Lacan`s, for Castoriadis differentiates individual (imagination) from social (imaginary), as well as elucidating different polarities of the social imaginary – instituted and instituting imaginary. These concepts might contribute in framing how imaginaries collide resulting in something new or constraining such a process when specific imaginaries present defensive mechanisms (instituted).  

A second probable contribution of Castoriadis to CMS is his interpretation of the interplay between individual and society. This is tackled by the concept of social-historical, whereby Castoriadis insists that accounts of society or history cannot be understood when viewed exclusively through one of these dimensions. For Castoriadis the mode of the being is the social-historical, that is, there is not an individual such as the image we grasp in our normal understanding, an individual is always a social-individual, for societies fabricate individuals, which though emerging from society  cannot be reducible to it. Hence, while individuals inevitably conform to society, a tension between psyche and society is always immanent. 

Finally, placing imagination and imaginary at the center of his inquiry provided Castoriadis with a genuine view of autonomy, for it assumes a very pragmatic hue in contrast to the transcendental ideal of emancipation. First, imagination, as an ontological element, posits limits to the very notion of science within humanities. Theory, Castoriadis insists, is an expression of human doing, and in this sense is always harbored by a project, an intention, a meaning and an orientation; any project is a social-historical product and as such is underpinned by specific social imaginary significations. Second, reasserting imagination as an ontological dimension might enhance the self-reflexivity of scholars tackling interpretive processes. Significations cannot be seen as objects and therefore they are never determined (in themselves) but rather determinable (for us), since we need to invest them according to our own actual imaginary. Hence, there is always someone who “talks” according to specific set of significations. This may lessen a disproportionate weight sometimes attributed to scientific expertise within management studies unveiling the imaginary significations harboring its projects. Change, in this case, takes place when putting into question the core imaginary significations animating social systems and their projects. Needless to say that breaking the closure of institutions and knowledge fields is not a simple task, since defensive imaginaries (instituted) try to constrain the emergence of questioning. Yet, when taken seriously the philosophy of the imaginary helps to the understanding of autonomy as a never ending project of questioning our social and organizational world, although the challenges posed by this questioning must be faced here and now.




Selbstdenker means ‘true’ thinker, a thinker who developed his own ideas in the philosophical sense.   

** An exception dealing more explicitly with his ideas within organization studies might be found in Hasselbladh and Theodoridis (1998).


References and further reading


A complete list of Castoriadis’ works can be found at 


Castoriadis, C. (1984) Value, equality, justice, politics: From Marx to Aristotle and from Aristotle to ourselves. In: Crossroads in the Labyrinth, pp.260-339. Brighton, UK: The Harvester Press.


_________ (1987) The Imaginary Institution of Society. MIT Press: Cambridge. 


_________ (1988)  First Institution of Society and Second-Order Institutions. Free Associations, 12, pp.39-51.


_________ (1994) Radical imagination and the social instituting imaginary. In: Gillian Robinson and John Rundell (eds.) Rethinking Imagination: Culture and Creativity, London and New York: Routledge.


____________ (1995) Logic, imagination, reflection. In: Elliott, A. and Frosh, S. Psychoanalysis in context: paths between theory and modern culture. Routledge, London.


Curtis, D. A. (1997). The Castoriadis Reader, Blackwell.


Contu, A., Driver, M. and C. Jones (2010) ´Jacques Lacan with Organization Studies´,  Organization 17(3): 307-315


Elliott, A. (2002) ‘The social imaginary: a critical assessment of Castoriadis`s psychoanalytic social theory’, American Imago, Vol. 59, N.2, pp. 141-170, Summer.


Hasselbladh, H. and F. Theodoridis (1998) ‘Social magmas and the conventional explanatory pyramid’, Scandinavian Journal of Management, Vol. 14, No.1/2, pp.53-76.


Joas, H. and R. Meyer (1989) Review: Institutionalization as a Creative Process: The Sociological Importance of Cornelius Castoriadis's Political Philosophy. The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 94, No. 5, pp. 1184-1199.


Klooger, J. (2009) Castoriadis: Psyche, Society, Autonomy. Leiden: Brill.


Stavrakakis, Y. (2007) ´Antinomies of Creativity: Lacan and Castoriadis on Social Construction and the Political´, in: Yannis Stavrakakis (ed) The Lacanian Left: Psychoanalysis, Theory, Politics, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


Urribarri, F. (2002) ´Castoriadis: The Radical Imagination and the Post-Lacanian Unconscious´,  Thesis Eleven 7: 40-51.


Whitebook, J (1998) 'Requiem for a Selbstdenker: Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1977)', Constelation Vol. 5(2): 152.