The imaginary as social foundation

In this text I present the philosophy of Cornelius Castoriadis in the context of the current sociopolitical landscape.


In 1975, the genius of Cornelius Castoriadis published L’Institution imaginaire de la société, aka The Imaginary Institution of Society. In this book, he said that every society has a set of core, underlying values and beliefs which constitute its foundation. They define how people perceive what’s worth doing and what matters in the society. This is called the imaginary of a society.

For instance, Cornelius said, for a Jewish person living two thousand years ago, the question of whether the Torah is fair cannot be asked. The belief that Torah defines what’s fair, is written by God, and there is no questioning it, is foundational for the Jewish society.

Every society across the world sets its own imaginary; however, almost all of them believe that it was not them who set it. They believe that it was something else that gave principal significance to this set of beliefs and values they follow.

Therefore, they believe they cannot change this set of beliefs and values. The imaginary remains the same because they have no control over it, as they believe it wasn’t them who defined it in the first place.

But, that’s almost certainly not true. Even though these societies believe the imaginary exists outside of them, in reality it was them who defined it, and in this same way it is only them who can change it.

Defining autonomy

If people know that it’s them who set the rules, would they adhere to them?

A negative answer is widely believed. Dostoevsky’s characters in The Brothers Karamazov say if there is no god, everything is permitted, meaning that people only contain their behaviour because of fear of someone above them, a master figure.

Cornelius defines autonomy as the ability to be able to set one’s own laws. He completely rejects Dostoevsky’s argument and claims that it is not only feasible but also of utmost importance, for a society to set their own laws.

To further clarify the term and respond to certain critique, following no rules and acting in-the-moment is not autonomy. Autonomy still includes predefined rules. The difference is that these rules are consciously determined by the society members, rather than by something external to the members.

An autonomous society is one that is designedly defining its own imaginary. This process of defining the imaginary is a constant one. It’s a constant re-definition, and interrogation of established values, beliefs, and traditions. This constant re-definition Cornelius describes as a tradition in itself. As the custom of frequently questioning the foundations of society.

Autonomy across history

Which communities—across the whole human history—were autonomous?

Cornelius says there have been two cases—at least that he knows of, he clarifies—of societies questioning their imaginary and achieving autonomy. The ancient Greek society from the 8th c. BC to the 5th c. BC, and the western European society from the Middle Ages till today.

Those two societies doubted the traditional viewpoints of the world and asked themselves:

  • What should the institutions of our society be?
  • What is fair and what is not?
  • What is worth doing?
  • How should we think?
  • What is truth?

They consciously answered based on the values they want to have. This is how they set their imaginary.

Our society’s imaginary

This now raises two questions. What is our society’s imaginary and do we believe it was us who set it?

Capitalism defines a healthy economy as one that’s always growing. Why? Logic says so. Capitalism dictates that the control of humanity over the Earth keeps growing. Why? It’s logical, isn’t it?

Not really. Even if we indulge ourselves to the argument from a strictly logical point of view—economy growing means more technology, means higher quality of life—we come to a dead end.

For example, why is higher life quality a thing to want? Ignoring the moral nihilism of this argument and looking at it purely rationally, the universe will eventually die, permeating a certain lack of logic purpose. Earth will also be dead long before that.

A utilitarian approach would say “anything to lessen human suffering”, but does economy growth translate to less human suffering? Maybe if we suffer we can reach a higher state of being, a consequentialist would say. But we don’t know that, and logic has to stop there. Even if we knew, strict logic wouldn’t justify a higher state of being.

Going back even further, why does technology lead to higher life quality? GDP being decoupled from human life wellbeing is now almost common knowledge. GDP growth actively lowering our wellbeing is also generally accepted; deforestation, air pollution, stress, et alia, all contribute to this wellbeing undoing.

So: why grow?

Trigger for change

Let’s re-examine the claim that it is logic that shows us that we need to keep growing our economy. It is possible to see logic as a tool or a process, but here—at least on a first level—we consider logic an entity in itself that dictates something, our imaginary. Regardless, though. One who makes the claim of logic believes that it was something else that defined our imaginary. They believe that it was logic that defined it, not us.

Following this claim, logic is the originator of our imaginary and logic does not bend to anything. Since we cannot change logic, we cannot change our imaginary, and subsequently we cannot change the foundations of our own society.

Cornelius implied in 1984 that we are indeed part of a society that questions our imaginary. Alas, as the reader might have guessed, I’m not sure that’s still true. Mostly because, when I tell people that it can be our choice to stop growing our economy they look at me in utmost perplexity. It feels that’s how one would be looked at if they said to an Old Testament Jewish person that the Torah is not fair. But, the conversation does exist on some level. Maybe that’s what Cornelius meant, that some level is enough.

During these COVID years, several things previously not in focus came into it. One example is nurses. There is virtually no one that believes that nurses are not underpaid or undervalued. Their work is not just essential but of vital importance. So why are they underpaid and undervalued? The answer is silly. It's because we must not intervene in the market on this level—yet we can intervene with furlough and stimulus checks, and bank bailouts for that matter.

A non-silly society, instead, would assert their ownership over its bedrock—the imaginary—and restore rudimentary justice by making the nurses’ compensation fair.

Consider this text a call to be non-silly. Of course, not just for nurses. Let’s be non-silly all together, and realise that it is only us who can change what we consider true and fair, how we should think, and what’s worth doing.

Consider this is a call to rebuild the ideological substratum of our society.