Intellectual history

Between Autonomy and Heteronomy: Castoriadis on the Ancient and Modern Democratic Imagination

By Avshalom Schwartz

By Avshalom Schwartz

Democracy appears prominently in Castoriadis’ writing. In particular, democracy provides one of the central examples of radical creative imagination and, with it, of the potential autonomy of this mental faculty. This autonomy stands in contrast to the heteronomy of the imaginary institutions of society, which are normally seen as independent of the society that created them. While the radical creative imagination allows society to recognize itself as the author of “new forms” of life, the imaginary institutions of society often appear as necessary, natural, and unchangeable. In this essay, I would like to explore the relationship between democracy and the autonomy of imagination. I will argue that despite the enormous benefits of Castoriadis’ approach to this relationship, his insistence on the binary of autonomous/heteronomous imagination and the either/or relationship between the autonomy of radical imagination and heteronomy of the imaginary institutions of society nonetheless resulted in obscuring the democratic potential of the imagination and its manifestations in both ancient and modern democracies.    

In an autonomous society, Castoriadis argues, “one finds a dawning recognition of the fact that the source of the law is society itself, that we make our own laws—whence results the opening up of the possibility of challenging and putting into question the existing institutions of society, which now is no longer sacred, or in any case not sacred in the same way as before” (105). Castoriadis saw this autonomy and radical creativity as tied to a critical rejection of existing institutions—particularly of ‘heteronomous’ imaginary institutions that shape and condition both the individual and society and appear as if they are not the creation of the society in question.

The autonomous society, therefore, will be characterized by “a challenging of the given institutions of society, the putting into question of socially instituted representations” and by calling into question one’s own common sense (268). This idea is most clearly present in Castoriadis’ account of the relationship between radical imagination, autonomy, and democracy. “In its genuine signification,” he explains, “democracy consists in this, that society does not halt before a conception, given once and for all, of what is just, equal, or free, but rather institutes itself in such a way that the question of freedom, of justice, of equity, and of equality might always be posed anew within the framework of the ‘normal’ functioning of society” (105).  

In contrast to Castoriadis’ autonomous creative imagination, the imaginary institutions of society most often appear as heteronomous: as passive and reproductive instead of active and productive. According to him, “from birth, the human subject is caught in a social-historical field, is placed under the simultaneous grip of the collective instituting imaginary, instituted society, and history, whose provisional culmination is this institution itself. In the first place, society can do nothing other than produce the social individuals that conform to it and that in turn produce it” (3). This conditioning of the individual by the invisible forces of society means that for most people, most of the time, the imaginary institutions of society appear as what Searle called “brute facts”: necessary and unchangeable facts of nature, and not the self-creation of society. As Castoriadis explains, “I call ‘heteronomous’ a society in which the nomos, the law, the institution, is given by another—heteros, in Greek. In fact, as we know, the law never really is given by someone else, it is always the creation of the society. In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, the creation of this institution is nevertheless imputed to an extrasocial instance or authority, or, in any case it eludes the power and the activity of living human beings” (104).

Castoriadis recognized the complexity of imagination and that it plays multiple—and often seemingly contradictory—roles in social and political life. Indeed, that is one of the more powerful conclusions of his writings on the imagination. Yet, he nonetheless framed this faculty as operating within a binary of autonomy/heteronomy. Such a binary position, however, not only misses a profoundly important fact about the political roles of the imagination but also hinders our capacity to recognize its democratic potential. Like Wolin’s idea of “fugitive democracy,” the autonomy and radical creativity that Castoriadis associates with democracy require constant and endless instituting and re-instituting.

As Wolin puts it, “institutionalization marks the attenuation of democracy […] Democracy thus seems destined to be a moment rather than a form” (110). In other words, a ‘true’ democracy must constantly question and challenge everything, including itself. It thus rejects any kind of institutionalization, which is seen as limiting society’s autonomy and generating heteronomous imaginary institutions. Of course, this doesn’t mean, for Castoriadis, that democracy is or should be limitless. On the contrary, he argues that democracy “must have limits.” These limits, however, are always a form of self-limitations, which means that they must continuously reflect the autonomy of society. In Castoriadis’ words, “democracy is the regime of self-limitations; that is, the regime of autonomy and self-institution” (123, italics added).    

It is hard, however, to picture a long-term successful and stable regime built solely on this autonomous and radical creative imagination and the total resistance to its codification within the heteronomous forces of the imaginary institutions of society. Even the Athenian democracy—Castoriadis’ primary historical example of autonomy and radical creativity—constantly reproduced its institutional arrangements while often attributing them to the heteronomy of heroes, lawgivers, and ancestors. This is most clearly evident in the Athenians’ attempt to legitimize institutional changes (for example, during the constitutional upheavals and civil war that followed Athens’ loss in the Peloponnesian War) by tracing them back to the laws and constitutions of the forefathers (the patrios nomos and patrios politeia) and to semi-mythical lawgiver figures such as Solon and Cleisthenes.

Such tradition, however, stands in contrast with Castoriadis’ depiction of democracy, which includes the rejection of any kind of extra-social source for its institutions, such as “the ancestors, the heroes, the gods, God, the laws of history or those of the market” (4). This depiction, indeed, seems incompatible with the wide range of extra-social forces that legitimized Athens’ democratic institutions and provided the Athenians with a shared identity and rich cultural background: from the mythical autochthony that justified Athens’ exclusionary citizenship laws to sacred religious rituals—like the Eleusinian Mysteries—that were tied to its shared civic identity or the ten tribes that Cleisthenes created in his democratic reforms of 507 BCE, which took the names of ten Athenian mythical heroes.    

The ancient Athenian democracy, therefore, is not a model of an autonomous and radical creative imagination but rather reveals a productive synthesis between the opposite poles of autonomy/heteronomy. In contrast to Castoriadis’ binary approach, ancient Athens thus allows us to recognize that any healthy and enduring political society will have to rely on the simultaneous presence of both the autonomy and the heteronomy of the imagination. The challenge of a democratic imagination, then, is to preserve this delicate balance while maintaining a commitment to democratic autonomy. This challenge is reflected well in Geuss’ observation that “human beings are subject to certain illusions, which they can to some extent see through as illusions, but which are nonetheless utterly necessary for them to continue to live” (95).

Such illusions are necessary, to some degree. The difference between, say, an absolutist and democratic imagination has to do, in part, with the extent to which subjects or citizens can see through them and recognize them as illusions. An absolutist imagination—which operated through and perpetuated images such as the King’s Two Bodies—seeks to mask these illusions and ensure that they appear natural and unchangeable. A democratic imagination, in contrast, should allow citizens to treat these necessary illusions as a kind of useful fiction, an open secret, or make-belief, thereby upholding their power over the individual as if they were brute facts while also recognizing them for what they are: contingent and changeable creation of society itself. The question, then, is not how we could eliminate such illusions altogether but rather how we could make them compatible with democratic autonomy and with the collective creation of society.

Avshalom Schwartz is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Stanford Civics Initiative at Stanford University studying political theory. His research focuses on the role of imagination in politics, the conceptual history of the imagination, and questions of legitimacy and political stability in classical and early modern political thought. He is working a book manuscript titled, Democratic Phantasies: Political Imagination and the Athenian Democracy, which offers a new theoretical perspective on the role played by the imagination in politics.

Edited by Thomas Furse

Featured Image: Demokratia crowning Demos from the ancient decree of Eukrates. Creative Commons.