key concepts coverA lot of this week’s blog is extracted from the chapter Psyche in Suzi Adams (ed.) Cornelius Castoriadis: Key Concepts, Continuum: London, pp. 75–88. I will indicate this by beginning the paragraph with the page numbers in brackets, as per the beginning of the next paragraph.

(KC: 76) ‘There are two very important points to make as a prelude to any discussion of the psyche, one methodological, the other historical. Methodologically, it is essential to recognize that no-one has ever “seen” a psyche – our observations and conclusions are limited to inferences drawn on the basis of its effects… The point here is that our understandings of psychic life continue to depend upon inferences drawn from observations of effects, rather than from direct observations of sources and processes.’

(KC: 76) ‘Historically, etymologically, the term psyche (psuchē) is the ancient Greek term for the “soul”, which for most of Western history has been understood in religious terms, as something of the spirit world which is independent of corporeality and materiality, something “belonging to the realm of God or the gods” (Gauchet 2002: 17). In this sense, one can think of psychology, psychoanalysis and their derivatives as efforts to develop a “science of the soul” after science displaced religious interpretations of human life. Freud, for example, sought the somatic bases of psychic activity, linking eros, or libido with the pleasure-principle and the self-preservation instinct. In this rendering, the soul is no longer drawn towards the divine; rather, a wholly somatic psyche is reduced to evolutionary functions of biological self-preservation or species reproduction.

psychic flux

A couple of weeks ago I showed this image in a first attempt to introduce this topic. Unfortunately, my ability to draw pictures in power point is woefully inadequate for the task at hand.

Part of the problem here is that we don’t actually know what a psyche looks like, and to speak of the psychic flux is to use a metaphor that might be as misleading as it is enlightening.

The arrows here are intended to represent movement of energy – a continuous upsurging of representations, intentions and affects.  Each of those energy flows is essentially formless, generating a cloud of thoughts and impressions. I’ve labelled the arrows with some of the more prominent “inputs” that we must deal with – but any such depictions is much too simplistic, and its important to not fall into the classic trap of worrying away at how the outside world gets to the inside. These so-called “inputs” are both from without and within.

The circles, rectangles and triangles are intended to indicate that those formless energies must be formed. In fact, to refer to them as thoughts and impressions is already to imply that they are formed.

One of Castoriadis’s great contributions is to interpret all of this as the imagination. That is, in contrast to almost all of the history of thinking about such things, he does not see the imagination as a separate faculty of the mind, as a secondary or even problematic faculty. Instead, the psyche and the imagination are almost synonymous – the process of converting sensory perceptions, for example, into representations, intentions and affects is an imagining – a process of the radical imaginary. In short, the imagination is the primary process of the psyche; reason and the emotions are products or subsets of the imagination.

Keeping in mind the idea of forcing clouds into boxes, we are talking about something we’ve never seen, but continuously experience. To refer to it as cloud-like is in fact already to force it into the box called clouds. Keep that in mind as I try out some other images to start to clarify this.


The image above is just a pretty picture to occupy my screen while I talk theoretically about the psychic flux – which is simply a more descriptive term for the psyche itself.

This thing that we call consciousness is one of the most consistent and vexing of mysteries. In last week’s discussion someone introduced the concept of a mirror neuron by way of helping us to get to an understanding of intersubjectivity. He said something about MRI showing neuronal activity at a particular location in the frontal lobe. I suggested that the mirror neuron concept is an explanation for a behaviour that we cannot explain; and that it is a purely hypothetical explanation.

(KC: 76) ‘On this point, Castoriadis observes that despite a lifetime ambition to establish psychoanalysis as a positivist science, in the end Freud acknowledged that even if one day our technology could reveal “a direct relation between psychic life and the nervous system”, as fMRI and other devices seem to be getting very close to doing, this would “at the most afford an exact localization of the processes of consciousness, and would give us no help in understanding them”. Indeed, recent developments in neuro-plasticity have revealed that any “exact localization” of these processes is problematized by the fact that the locations of neurological functions are fluid and dynamic – they can relocate to different areas of the brain as required to compensate for acquired brain injuries as well as changes elsewhere in the neural system (e.g., the loss of a limb, or an organ) (see Doidge 2007).’

In short, what this new technology can show us is where things are happening – but we still have little idea of what is happening, or why it happens.

Putting this another way – one of the disturbingly insightful images in The Matrix was the presentation of human beings as basically electro-chemical energy producers. Input the right nutrients and fuel, and you will get an electrical output. The answer to “why” this is the case is the answer to “why” there is life – an even greater mystery than why there is consciousness.

How and why the electro-chemical processes generate consciousness remains unknown. What we can say, though, is that our consciousness consists of representations, intentions and affects. Some of these are stimulated by our present perceptions– as per the jnanendriyas; and others are present in the form of stored memories.

When Castoriadis outlines these different aspects of the psychic flux – representations, affects and intentions – he calls them “determinants”. I find that an unfortunate and misleading use of language. But he’s also clear that when we speak about these three different components, characteristics or aspects of the psychic field, we’re making a mistake in speaking as if they are somehow separate or separable. They are all indistinguishable and inseparable parts of a whole – the psychic flux affects us, shaped by our intentions, which shape and are shaped by our perceptions / representations.

microscopePleasure principle

In Freud’s efforts to make sense of psychic activity he drew on biological explanations – which makes sense. I’ve just described psychic activity as an electro-chemical process. He was trying to make sense of that. But he was also trying to demonstrate that psychoanalysis was as rigorously scientific as chemistry or physics – a big mistake, although somewhat understandable.

Anyway, he pointed out that if you put a single celled organism on a slide and put a drop of a beneficial substance near it – e.g. sugar syrup – the organism will move towards it. But if you put a drop of something deadly near it – e.g., an acid – the organism will move away from it. He identified this as the survival instinct, but also the pleasure principle – there is pleasure in receiving sustenance, in surviving. The inverse is moving away from pain, displeasure, danger – still part of the survival instinct.

He didn’t mention, to my knowledge, that he was reproducing an old trope – one the philosophers had played with before there were microscopes, and thus before we had discovered single-celled organisms. But this pleasure principle provides the basis of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian formula “the greatest good for the greatest number” – built upon the same idea that human beings are intrinsically drawn towards pleasure and away from pain, or displeasure.

Much of Freud’s early work on the psyche revolved around identifying the mechanisms of the pleasure principle, and how it could be diverted, repressed and perverted into other forms. Later he postulated the opposing death instinct – in a complicated process of explaining both that all living organisms die, and that some of them do it intentionally. We might categorize smoking and extreme sports as expressions of the death instinct.

This is all overly simplified, but I present it simply as background info – because the main point is that while it is understandable, it is also almost entirely wrong – missing the most fundamentally important aspects of the human psyche; that which makes us fundamentally different to all other living beings: the fact that the psyche has been defunctionalized!

(KC: 76-77) ‘One of Castoriadis’s most important contributions to understanding the psyche (as well as the social individual and the social-historical) is his observation that the formation and functioning of the human psyche is not determined by mere biological imperatives, but has been defunctionalized such that “representational pleasures” become dominant over “organ pleasures”. The psyche, Castoriadis says, is an “unlimited and unmasterable representative flux, a representational spontaneity that is not enslaved to an ascribable end”. Which means that it exceeds the minimal requirements for – and the rationalities of – self-preservation and species-reproduction, as well as exceeding any simple reflection of the natural or objective world; it is irreducible to any rationality or ends-means logic.’


Whereas Freud’s understanding of the pleasure principle was in purely biological terms, Castoriadis’s introduction of the radical imaginary moves the focus to representational pleasures – we pursue pleasure through the creative imagination: in literature and art, cooking and building, in language and music, etc. That’s what he means when he says that representational pleasure has supplanted organ pleasure.

“Supplanted” does not mean replaced or done away with, though! We still have biological needs, biological drives – we certainly still respond to sensory pleasures, the pleasures of the flesh.

But you might recall that when Maslow’s hierarchy of needs came up a few weeks ago, I shared Primo Levi’s story of trading food rations for the pleasure of playing a violin for an hour. Music is a representational pleasure.

So is writing, word play, games and gaming, art work, craft work and so on. Bare block unadorned dwellings would satisfy the organ needs for shelter – but we invest time and money in decorating our homes, landscaping our gardens, building beautiful cities and so on. We are not satisfied with homespun plain cotton clothing – we need colours, styles, textures, and ways of distinguishing ourselves.

Some of us can survive on lentils and rice – but most of us crave variety. We crave herbs and spices and delicious aromas etc. Yes aromas are in fact an organ pleasure – but whatever role aromas and flavours play in the foodie appreciation circles, the main game there is about competing for status – demonstrating one’s refinement of either the skills of producing something beautiful and different , or the tastes to appreciate it.

Many social customs amount to little more than what we might call airs and graces – manners and mannerisms whose primary purpose is to demonstrate that we know better, that we are different, more cultured, more “us” than “them”. All of these are representational pleasures, statements of identity, of culture, of belonging, of status.

And none of it has to do with the biological or evolutionary imperatives that so many people are drawn to in their efforts to explain human behaviour and human social life.

Sublimation / Socialization

(KC: 79-80) ‘The psychical is continuous – a flux of forms, but a formless flux: Chaos. This flux is not just a temporary developmental condition, but continues for the life-span of the individual; it can be formed and is in constant need of being formed, but is beyond control, beyond conscious cognition,. For the individual human being to survive, order must be imposed upon this chaos, the forms must be structured, so to speak. But the psyche has no intrinsic resources for constructing order of the world around it beyond its own capacity to ‘distinguish-choose-posit-assemble-count-speak’. Thrown into a world not of its making and beyond its control, the new born child begins to search for meaning (order, structure) outside of itself, through significant others in the process known as socialization.’

(KC: 80-81) ‘Most importantly, for Castoriadis, the psyche is itself the source, the genesis of emergent representations. It is a formlessness which forms itself; yet forms itself in accordance with forms that it acquires from beyond itself. Here Castoriadis provides a correction to the history of philosophical thought about sense data – an issue at the heart of epistemology; a fundamental problem in the philosophy of mind: how do sensory impressions of what is external to the perceiving subject come to be internal to the subject? Castoriadis’s response is that the external does not become internal, but rather that the psyche generates its own representations, and forms them itself, in the process of making sense of (or making meaningful) its sensory experience. Perceiving is representing, and “representation pertains to the radical imagination; it is radical imagination manifesting itself and taking shape [le figurant]. It is so just as much when it is perceptual representation and when it ‘leans’ … on a being-thus of the sensible”. Furthermore, Castoriadis argues, it is not sufficient “to say that perceiving presupposes imagining. To perceive is to imagine, in the literal and active sense of this term. To perceive (as well as to remember) is a species of imagining, perception a variant of representation”. This is the basis for the earlier claim that the psychical for-itself constructs an imaginary world of its own; its sensory perceptions of the external world are every bit as imaginary as its phantasms and dreams. The genesis of representations is an autopoietic psychic activity, an activity that remains beyond (complete or total) rational self-control, objective knowledge, etc. Another way to say this is that these processes remain unconscious, which I will discuss in more detail later.

(KC: 81) ‘Despite its autopoiesis and self-constitution, the psyche can only constitute itself with and from the forms available to it in the social-historical world. This world includes a society; both significant others and the anonymous collective. It is a world constituted by social imaginary significations or the “discourses of the other”. While representations, affects and intentions may be seen to be ‘internally’ generated by the psychic flux, they must also be seen to be ‘externally’ stimulated – but not determined – by the shock of the subject’s encounter with the external world. The psyche must distinguish-separate-order-choose – that is, it must ensemble a world, making sense of the chaos, constructing a world of its own with, from, and in the flux of representations, affects and intentions that it generates. This representing, this imaging / creating is always an activity (not always an intentional activity, but always an activity) of an embodied subject immersed in a world of embodied subjects, physical objects and so on. These subjects and objects etc., precede the world constructed by the psyche, and are thus present to the psyche in what we might think of as pre-imagined forms, what Castoriadis calls social imaginary significations. Social “institutions and social imaginary significations are creations of the radical social instituting imaginary,’ which is, in turn “the creative capacity of the anonymous collectivity”. Here, the anonymous collectivity is a synonym for the social-historical which, as mentioned, has the characteristics of the for-itself. As we have seen, this entails the characteristics of self-finality and constructing a world of its own. Which is to say that the new born psyche enters a world that has already been constructed in social imaginary signification by the particular society into which it finds itself, and must find (/construct) its self.

(KC: 82) ‘In its initial state the psyche is incapable of distinguishing between self and other, or self and world. It can only, and must, refer everything to itself as itself. Castoriadis therefore takes issue with Freud’s choice of the term ‘primary narcissism’, a preference for the self ‘to the exclusion of all others’. Instead, Castoriadis argues, we must think instead of a totalitarian inclusion; a psychic form (or, more precisely, a preformed psyche) that precedes the ability to distinguish self from other; a psyche which represents itself to itself as undifferentiated, omnipotent and self-sufficient. Inevitably, however, this phantasy of totality is ruptured by desire; by the absence of the object of desire (the infamous “absent breast” is the most obvious example here). This absence brings the other – and then another – into focus (the mother and then the father in the stereotypical psychoanalytical scenario). Castoriadis calls this encounter with the others the ‘triadic phase’, arguing that fragmentation of the psychical flux is inevitable and necessary, and yet the phantasy of monadic closure, the phantasy of totality, never dissipates. It remains a driving force throughout life.’

(KC: 82-83) ‘Hence there is a tension between openness and closure that appears to be imposed upon the psyche by its necessary and inevitable immersion in a social-historical world. The theory of a ‘psychic monad’ that is fragmented in a ‘triadic phase’ implies that the newborn psyche is perhaps potentially satisfied as an undifferentiated, homogeneous flux. But this potential disappears with the appearance of the others. In the fragmentation, as the psyche moves from a monadic to a triadic condition, the primordial condition is fundamentally changed, altering the ontological ground. That which generates and forms – the psyche – has been transformed, re-constituted in the forming. And hence the perpetual desire for monadic closure ultimately cannot be satisfied; there can be no return to the primordial, preformed, psychic monad.’

(KC: 83) ‘According to Castoriadis, the primary form(less-ness) of the psychic flux is Chaos, the Abyss, Groundlessness. The chaotic flux must be formed into images that are meaningful in the tension between self and other, between opening and closure. Socialization is the process of forming the psychic flux by sublimating social imaginary significations. Socialization / sublimation is the process through which the psyche / society institutes form, constructing a world of its own even while constituting itself as a socially instituted individual. The human subject comes into being in the process of instituting form in and from the psychic flux. But the institution of the psychic flux is neither a simple external imposition, nor merely an autopoietic expression of an innate organization. As we have seen, it is a multifaceted interaction between the radical imaginary of the singular psyche and the social instituting imaginary of the anonymous collective. “It is the produced and productive union of the self and the other (or the world)”. Society (attempts to) impose(s) various institutions and the psyche must institute meanings for itself with reference to these social institutions. The two processes are mutually irreducible.

(KC: 83-84) ‘The new psyche enters the world as an unformed, chaotic psychic flux of indistinct representations and a drive towards closure, but the need to create meaning drives an opposite move towards openness. In other words, although the unformed psyche has an insatiable desire for instituted closure, it is always and at the same time intrinsically open to new meanings, institutions and norms with which to form that closure. The demand for meaning creates a need for resources that the radical imaginary cannot supply for itself; it does not have the resources from which to affect the closure it desires. Paradoxically, the psyche must actively open itself to the other to satisfy its need for the materials from which to construct its own closure. “The psyche is a forming, which exists in and through what it forms and how it forms, it is … formation and imagination”. The unformed psyche must form itself, but can only form itself as a self through being-with-others; other socialised individuals who are the bearers (instituting-institutions) of a particular society’s social imaginary significations. Only through being-with-others can the psyche acquire the representations, norms and meanings, etc that are necessary for it to construct itself as a self.’

Autonomous subjectivity

(KC: 84-85) ‘Castoriadis frequently returns to Freud’s famous phrase: “Where Id was, there Ego shall be”. Among the problems with this formulation, he points out, is that even if we could clearly distinguish the Id from the Ego, it would be an impossibility to bring all of Id into consciousness (Ego). A better expression of this poetic practice, he argues, comes if we turn this around and say: “Where Ego is, Id should also emerge” – to bring the unconscious into the light [note: this is where we started this discussion series, with Alana Loiuse May quoting Jung on this point]; to distinguish between psychical phantasies and perceptions; to achieve greater lucidity and clarity about the particular relationship between the radical imaginary at the core of the human psyche and the radical social instituting imaginary; and to change the relationship between the representation, the affect, and the intentions. These are not all the same thing, yet they are inseparable. On the one hand we are invoking a ‘different relationship’ between the unconscious and the consciousness – bringing more of the unconscious into consciousness, and thus enabling the individual to have greater control over their responses to the affects and intentions of the psychic flux (i.e., one cannot control the flux per se, but can to some extent control how one responds to the flux). On the other hand, we are discussing a different relationship to the internalized “discourses of the other”. Discussions of the political project of autonomy tend to focus on this latter development; the institution of autonomous subjects requires first that they internalise the discourses of the other, and then self-reflexively make these discourses their own. Yet Castoriadis observes that this new relationship with the discourses of the other is contingent upon the social subject also developing a different relationship with its unconscious phantasies and drives. The similarities between the philosophical “man of reason” from Plato to Descartes are obvious here – we are certainly discussing what Descartes referred to as the need to acquire control over the passions. What Castoriadis makes clear, though, is that this control is never once-and-for-all, never final or complete. The genesis of phantasms (of passions, drives, etc.) is interminable and ultimately irrepressible. Furthermore, and most importantly, the reason of inherited thought is presented as a faculty internal to the thinking subject; whereas, for Castoriadis, what has traditionally been called reason is in fact a plurality of ensidic logics – a magma of logics which is particular to a culture or society – which have been internalised by the psyche during the institution of the social individual. Put this way, the traditional view maintains that the person of reason is one who has managed to control his / her passions (drives, phantasms) in accordance with the magma of social imaginary institutions peculiar to his / her particular culture. Castoriadis’s radical breakthrough is to see that autonomy can only be achieved when this magma of social imaginary significations is also called into question – by each autonomous individual, and thus by the collective anonymous itself.’

(KC: 85) ‘He therefore defines the aim of the project of autonomy at the level of the psyche as “instaurating another kind of relationship between the reflective subject (of will and of thought)” – i.e., the socially instituted individual – and his or her “Unconscious – that is, radical imagination”, the pre-instituted / pre-formed flux of representation, affects and intentions. Each psyche enters the world anew, unformed, needing form, and forming itself in and with the forms present in the social imaginary. The social subject is thus this particular social individual, an embodied and psychical being that has formed itself, created a world of its own in and from the world in which it is immersed. Castoriadis understands the psyche to be compelled to make meaning, to make sense of its encounter with the world. But we must also recognize that in many, if not most instances, form is imposed upon the psyche by the social imaginary; i.e., the social-historical, the other. In short, con-form-ance is often compulsory, demanded by significant and generalized others, by the anonymous collective.’

(KC: 85-86) ‘Yet Castoriadis is also clear that the psychic flux is unquenchable, unmasterable; the forms it assumes are not ‘once-and-for-all’; and therefore all psychic formations – whether imposed, compelled, or voluntarily internalized –  are at least in principle always potentially under threat from within the psyche itself. In the same way, the institutions of society are also in principle at least threatened by the perpetual dynamics of the individual’s psychic flux. Yet it is these same dynamics that render possible the instauration of autonomous modes of being; autonomous societies and autonomous subjectivities. For these institutions (societies and subjects) to be autonomous requires critical self-reflexivity focused upon the forms of the institutions themselves; an acceptance that the forms that have been instituted are self-generated, self-instituted, and can be re-formed by this form that is simultaneously a forming.  From this perspective, the place of psychoanalysis in Castoriadis’s project of autonomy is to enable social individuals to more clearly elucidate their own self-forming in order to re-form it. Castoriadis chooses to pursue a project of autonomy, which entails creating autonomous social institutions. At the level of the psyche this entails becoming increasingly cognizant of the instituted forms, the processes of institutions, and the capacity to re-form. It also entails recognizing that the forms serve a function but cannot be reduced to these functions, and are certainly not inherently optimally functional.’


As has happened each week, we didn’t really get to discuss Autonomy in much detail, so we will pick up on and try to clarify the ideas in this final section next week, to conclude this discussion series.



Brunner, J., 2002, ‘Freud’s (De)construction of the Conflictual Mind’, Thesis Eleven No.71, pp. 24–39

Castoriadis, C. 1984 “Epilegomena to a Theory of the Soul which has been presented as a science”, in Crossroads in the Labyruinth (tr. by Kate Soper and Martin H. Ryle), Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, pp. 3–45

_________ 1987 Imaginary Institution of Society (tr. K. Blamey), Cambridge: Polity Press

_________ 1997, World in Fragments, David Ames Curtis (editor and translator), Stanford: Stanford University Press

Doidge, Norman, 2007, The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science, Penguin: New York.

Gauchet, M. 1997, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, translated by Oscar Burge, New French Thought, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Smith (2010) Meaning, Subjectivity, Society: Making Sense of Modernity, Brill: Leiden.

________ 2014 ‘Psyche’ in Suzi Adams (ed.) Cornelius Castoriadis: Key Concepts, Continuum: London, pp. 75–88