Thematically speaking, “Passion and Knowledge” fits extremely well with the title so felicitously chosen by the French Editors for this posthumous Carrefours tome. In that text, Castoriadis connects his enduring theme of “the thinkable” to the philosophical and psychoanalytic aspects of the process of knowing and to the conditions for knowledge and truth, as contrasted with mere belief. The ontological tenor of his remarks is immediately recognizable to English-language readers of his World in Fragments essays:

Clearly, the knowledge process presupposes two conditions that have to do with being itself. Curiously, only one of these two has especially been put forward by the inherited philosophy. For there to be knowledge, at least something of being must be knowable, since obviously no subject of any kind would ever be able to know anything about an absolutely chaotic world. Being, however, must also be neither “transparent” nor even exhaustively knowable. Just as the mere existence of beings-for-themselves assures us that there are a certain stability and a certain orderedness to at least one stratum of being—its first natural stratum, the one with which the living being deals—so the existence of a history of knowledge has its own weighty ontological implications. This history shows in effect that being is not such as it would be if an initial interrogation or a first effort at attaining knowledge could exhaust it. If one pursues this line of questioning, one will note that these facts are thinkable [emphasis added—T/E] only by positing a stratification or fragmentation of being.

A second use of the thinkable, even more powerful and revealing than the first from the standpoint of the full title of this posthumous tome, follows approximately a page later in “Passion and Knowledge” and constitutes, indeed, the conclusion to this important Castoriadis text:

The true becomes creation, always open and always capable of turning back upon itself, of forms of the thinkable [emphasis added—T/E] and of contents of thought capable of having an encounter with what is. The cathexis is no longer cathexis of an “object,” or even of a “self-image” in the usual sense, but of a “nonobject/object,” activity and source of the true. The attachment to this truth is the passion for knowledge, or thought as Eros.

Besides the two above-cited instances found in this supplemental text, the thinkable appears as such only two other times in FT(P&K): once in the first chapter, regarding what was thinkable in fifth-century Greece, and once in the interview conducted by Fernando Urribarri, the fine Argentinian student of Castoriadis’s psychoanalytic thought—but in this last instance, it is Urribarri the questioner and not Castoriadis the interviewee who employs the term. True, the word unthinkable does occur four times in FT(P&K), but never with the force or depth of forms of the thinkable as found at the conclusion to “Passion and Knowledge.” In this added chapter, Castoriadis also reiterates his firm stand that what man generally has sought in history is not knowledge, with all the attendant difficulties of a search for truth, but belief. And here he gives this key assertion an interesting social-historical twist: “What, then, is passionately cathected is instituted social ‘theory,’ namely, established beliefs.”

The status of such “instituted social ‘theory,'”what he elsewhere calls, after Bacon, the “idols of the tribe,” but which clearly encompasses not only social representations but the forms by which those representations are created and expressed—in short, the figures of a society’s “thinkables”—can come to highlight the argument made at the outset of another FT(P&K) chapter, “First Institution of Society and Second-Order Institutions.” In the latter text, Castoriadis asks whether there can be a “theory of the institution,” and he responds in the negative: there can be no external viewing of a society’s institutions, for we are always already in the institution. It is in questioning the institution, in trying to elucidate its imaginary character, that we can, not have a “view” of it (theoria), but seek to participate in an ongoing practical effort, already instituted in certain societies, to adopt a critical attitude with respect to instituted social beliefs, what our or another society is able to think, and we do so with the help of a positing of new figures of the thinkable.

While Castoriadis himself did not spell things out so clearly, one may pertinently ask, after reading these two FT(P&K) chapters in tandem, what those who have gone into the academy to “do social theory” think they are doing; and we may wonder whether, without the critical approach Castoriadis provides concerning what is instituted as thinkable in the imaginary institution of a society, they are accomplishing anything at all. ~ Indeed, it was with respect to the question of theory that Castoriadis first introduced the thinkable in the installment of “Marxism and Revolutionary Theory” (MRT) that appeared in the October-December 1964 issue of S. ou B.: Theory as such is a making/doing, the always uncertain attempt to realize the project of elucidating the world. And this is also true for that supreme or extreme form of theory—philosophy — the attempt to think the world without knowing, either before or after the fact, whether the world is effectively thinkable [emphasis added— T/E], or even just what thinking exactly means.16 It was, moreover, in MRT that Castoriadis made his celebrated and controversial assertion that one must choose between Marxism and revolutionary theory, with him opting there, as we know, for the latter.

While it is not our purpose here to retrace fully Castoriadis’s thoughts on theory, including revolutionary theory, which themselves have a complicated, varied, and stratified history not easily summarized in a few phrases or phases, for the purpose of aiding the reader of the present volume to think about the thinkable in Castoriadis’s work, it may nevertheless be helpful, first of all, to recall simply that in many ways “theory,” in particular “revolutionary theory,” was the term with which he was at grips before thinking and the thinkable became prominent concerns in his work.17 It might also be useful to observe that his main concern in confronting and elaborating theory was at least twofold, motivated as it was both by a desire to recognize the particular significance of theory in fostering practice and (given Castoriadis’s perspective as a revolutionary critic of bureaucratic rationalization) by a concerted effort to put theory in its place. Thus, we may observe how “Without development of revolutionary theory, no development of revolutionary action” (CR, p. 37)—his now-celebrated revision, in the first issue of Socialisme ou Barbarie, of the classic saying, “Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary action”— was prefaced by a nuanced conception of theory’s close  and crucial relations with practice:

Separated from practice, from its preoccupations and from its control, attempts at theoretical elaboration cannot but be vain, sterile, and increasingly meaningless. Conversely, practical activity that does not base itself on constant research can lead only to a cretinized form of empiricism (ibid.).

as well as followed by a renewed insistence on the indispensable role of theory:

All this does not signify merely that the development and propagation of revolutionary theory already are extremely important practical activities—which is correct, but insufficient. It signifies, above all, that without a renewal of the fundamental conceptions there will be no practical renewal (ibid.).

For Castoriadis and Socialisme ou Barbarie, as we know, such a revolutionary theoretical renewal of fundamental conceptions came to pass by way of an increasingly critical and negative assessment of Marxism as a revolutionary theory as well as by way of a new conception, what Castoriadis called in 1952 “the creative activity of tens of millions of people as it will blossom during and after the revolution,” the “revolutionary and cosmogonic character” of which “will be original and unforeseeable,” and which contrasts (in what he was already calling there “the profound antinomy of Marxism”) with Marxism’s pretension to a “scientific analysis of society” (“Proletarian Leadership,” PSW1, p. 198). It was in the first installment of “On the Content of Socialism” (1955) that Castoriadis began to examine how a certain kind of theory was part of the problem, while he continued to emphasize how a practical renewal of revolutionary theory, centered now on this “free creative activity,” was required:

Socialism can be neither the fated result of historical development, a violation of history by a party of supermen, nor still the application of a program derived from a theory that is true in itself. Rather, it is the unleashing of the free creative activity of the oppressed masses. Such an unleashing of free creative activity is made possible by historical development, and the action of a party based on this theory can facilitate it to a tremendous degree. Henceforth it is indispensable to develop on every level the consequences of this idea (PSW1, p. 297/CR, p. 48).

By the time his controversial and contested programmatic S. ou B. text “Recommencing the Revolution” (RR) was finally published in 1964, Castoriadis was calling for “nothing less than a radical theoretical and practical renewal” (PSW3, p. 28/CR, p. 107). There, he looked in review at Socialisme ou Barbarie’s development of revolutionary theory over the previous decade and a half:

From the first issue of our review we have affirmed, in conclusion of our critique of conservatism in the realm of theory, that “without development of revolutionary theory, no development of revolutionary action.” Ten years later, after having shown that the basic postulates as well as the logical structure of Marx’s economic theory reflect “essentially bourgeois ideas” and having affirmed that a total reconstruction of revolutionary theory was needed, we concluded, “Whatever the contents of the organization’s revolutionary theory or program, and however deep their connections with the experience and needs of the proletariat, there always will be the possibility, the certainty even, that at some point this theory and program will be outstripped by history, and there will always be the risk that those who have defended them up to that point will tend to make them into absolutes and to try to subordinate and adapt the creations of living history to fit them.”18 Castoriadis’s goal in RR was to bring together “the elements for an all-around theoretical reconstruction.” And yet, he added immediately, “one must also grasp that this reconstruction affects not only the content of the ideas, but also the very type of theoretical conception we are attempting to make” (PSW3, p. 33/CR, p. 112)—a type that, it must now be recognized, will always eventually be outstripped by the free creative action of living men and women in history. Theory of a certain type was being questioned, not just this or that theory surpassed by the constant and inevitable revolutionizing of reality. RR

elaborates on what a “true in itself” theory actually entails, and it does so in light of what, before MRT, Castoriadis was already calling”the ruination of Marxism.” This ruination, he explains, is not only the ruination of a certain number of specific ideas (though we should point out, if need be, that through this process of ruination a number of fundamental discoveries and a way of envisaging history and society remain that no one can any longer ignore). It is also the ruination of a certain type of connection among ideas, as well as between ideas and reality or action. In brief, it is the ruination of the conception of a closed theory (and, even more, of a closed theoretico-practical system) that thought it could enclose the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth of the historical period presently occurring within a certain number of allegedly scientific schemata (PSW3, p. 33/CR, p. 113).

In RR, he was already writing the obituary of Marxism as revolutionary theory, but also of a certain type of theory: Never again will there be a complete theory that would need merely to be “updated.” Incidentally, in real life there never was any theory of this sort, for all great theoretical discoveries have veered off into the imaginary as soon as one tried to convert them into systems, Marxism no less than the others. What there has been, and what there will continue to be, is a living theoretical process, from whose womb emerge moments of truth destined to be outstripped (were it only through their integration into another whole within which they no longer have the same meaning).19

Castoriadis pertinently added here: “The idea of a complete and definitive theory . . . is today only a bureaucrat’s phantasm helping him to manipulate the oppressed; for the oppressed, it can only be the equivalent, in modern-day terms, of an essentially irrational faith,” observing, moreover, that the “theological phase” in the history of the workers’ movement was “drawing to a close” (ibid.). It was therefore not as an entirely new departure, but as a summation of fifteen years of constantly developing and mutating revolutionary theory, that Castoriadis declared in MRT, “the very idea of a complete and definitive theory is a pipe dream and a mystification,” before affirming, almost in passing, that “a total theory cannot exist” (IIS, p. 71/CR, p. 146). And yet his mention, three pages later, of “that supreme or extreme form of theory—philosophy,” which introduces for the first time his theme of the thinkable, both problematizes theory further and signals a switch to a broader examination of thinking, its ambiguities, and its aporias, for he describes philosophy there, we saw, as “the attempt to think the world without knowing, either before or after the fact, whether the world is effectively thinkable, or even just what thinking exactly means.” Thus, for those who have followed him so far, he returns to the complex relations of theory and practice, now informed by his explicit critique of “total theory” and turning toward the signification of praxis and making/doing (faire in French). And, for those who now know where he would go once he had explicitly introduced philosophy and thinking, and not just “theory,” into his sphere of concerns, it is clear why he immediately speaks of politics—what he will later call philosophy’s nonidentical twin in the project of questioning and challenging the instituted world:

To demand that the revolutionary project be founded on a complete theory is therefore to assimilate politics to a technique and to posit its sphere of action—history—as the possible object of a finished and exhaustive knowledge. To invert this reasoning and conclude on the basis of the impossibility of this sort of knowledge that all lucid revolutionary politics is impossible amounts, finally, to a wholesale rejection of all human activity and history as unsatisfactory according to a fictitious standard. Politics, however, is neither the concretization of an Absolute Knowledge nor a technique; neither is it the blind will of no one knows what. It belongs to another domain, that of making/doing, and to the specific mode of making/doing that is praxis.20




by Cornelius Castoriadis**
translated from the French  and edited anonymously as a public service

**A Paul Cardan (active 1959-1965) was a pseudonym for Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997).


16.At least, we know of no earlier instances of the thinkable in Castoriadis than this one. In the text, we have used the corrected translation found in CR, p. 149, where Curtis replaced Blamey’s translation, “conceivable” (IIS, p. 74), with “thinkable” (pensable). In general, and where possible, we have relied on the excepted version of IIS in CR.

17.It makes perfect sense that for Castoriadis, a Greek, the transition from theory to thinking would be, in some ways, a continuity, for among the ancient Greek terms he at times translates as thinking [penser] or thought [la pensée] are not just gnÇm‘, nous/noein, and phron‘ma, but also theorein. Cf., in his remarkable account of “The Discovery of the Imagination,” this translation of Aristotle: “When one thinks (theorei), it is necessary that at the same time (hama) one contemplate (theorein) some phantasm (WIF, p. 217). Obviously, “thinking” has many language-embedded nuances, and these nuances make a reconstructive account of Castoriadis’s thinking about thought and theory all the more challenging, and interesting.

18″Recommencing the Revolution,” PSW3, p. 29/CR, p. 108 (translation slightly altered). The accompanying endnote (PSW3, p. 53n2/CR, p. 137n2) points out that the text cited here is the 1959 S. ou B. position paper “Proletariat and Organization, I,” and that the specific passages discussed are to be found in PSW2, pp. 202-3, 213-14, and 220. Actually, the second of these three citations should read “pp. 213-15” and concerns a section entitled “Revolutionary Theory,” which obviously sheds important light on the whole discussion here and bears rereading.

19Ibid. Obviously, Castoriadis’s views on the imaginary were not highly developed yet in this text composed in 1963.

20IIS, p. 75; again, we opted for the revised translation (in CR, p. 149).


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