Rationality and radical imagination. The critique of Castoriadis

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According to a widespread but superficial understanding of modern rationality, it is a lack of rational control and an excess of passions, emotions and imagination, which is responsible for evils of any kind – in society and politics as well as in individual life. The remedy for evil is therefore to be sought in reason. By contrast, Horkheimer and Adorno argue in their Dialectic of Enlightenment that the root of evil is reason itself, especially in its calculating instrumental form. According to their analysis, the connection between instrumental reason and power results in a deadly cocktail that has led to the worst excesses and catastrophes, most obviously in the 20th century. Their diagnosis is recognized by many as right, but what does this mean for the modern concept of rationality, for reason tout court, and for the project of Enlightenment? Is their analysis accurate or is the analysis of Cornelius Castoriadis more useful? This French-Greek philosopher also worked out a discipline-transcending critical theory and, like the two Frankfurters, he focused therefore on political economy, sociology, bureaucracy, power structures, classical and modern philosophy, psychoanalysis, art and language. According to him, since the 18th century, in parallel with the critical autonomy project of the Enlightenment, an opposite and contrary project has been developed, a second ‘imaginary meaning’, namely that of capitalism which is a project of rational domination of the other (other people, nature, and oneself, i.e. emotions, body, imagination) through reason. This formulation is very similar to that of Horkheimer and Adorno, but Castoriadis does not question the Enlightenment as project of general critical knowledge and autonomy for everyone. He does put the same accents, though, criticises the same reality, the same evil of alienation, sfrutation and domination. The process of degeneration of modern rationality and the destruction of its critical function result in a generalised conformism: la Raison, processus ouvert de critique et d’éludication, se transforme en computation mécanique et uniformisante. From ‘L’époque du conformisme généralisé’ and other essays in Le monde morcelé (1990) on the theme of the loss of autonomy and criticism, I want to go back to what lies at the basis of Castoriadis’ analyses, his discovery of the fundamental imagination (‘La décourverte de l’imagination’, Domaines de l’homme 1978/1986) and his assumption of the radical imagination as condition for any form of knowledge (L’imaginaire comme tel 1968/2007).
Translated title of the contributionRationality and radical imagination. The critique of Castoriadis
Original languageItalian
Title of host publicationRagione, razionalità e razionalizzazione in età moderna e contemporanea
EditorsMaurizio Cambi, Raffaele Carbone, Antonio Carrano, Edoardo Massimilla
Place of PublicationNapoli
PublisherFedOA Press – Federico II University Press
Number of pages10
ISBN (Print)978-88-6887-086-7
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Critical theory
  • Frankfurt school
  • Castoriadis
  • reason and rationality
  • modern philosophy
  • contemporary continental philosophy


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