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How Castoriadis read Weber

Meaning, values, and imaginary institution


The interest Cornelius Castoriadis had in Max Weber’s work, although quite apparent and confessed by the philosopher himself, has not drawn sufficient attention by scholars and commentators. [1] It is no coincidence that the first and the last texts Castoriadis published while living both deal with Weber. The first of these was a thoroughly annotated Greek translation of the first pages of Weber’s Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. This text was published when Castoriadis was 22 years old and then republished in 1988, when the philosopher was 66. At this point the now mature thinker, who had already published The Imaginary Institution of the Society some 13 years before, adds a telling preface in the new edition of his “First Tryouts”: “I believe that those who are interested in my later work will find in these writings of my 22 years (nos vingt-deux carats, as a French song goes) the problematic which formed my route afterwards.” [2] For its part, the last text Castoriadis wrote was an intense critique of the capitalistic rationality and referred explicitly to Max Weber three times – and several more times implicitly. These two texts can be considered as milestones of Castoriadis’ philosophical journey and as indicators of a theoretical passion which never ceased to inspire the philosopher.

Against this biographical and bibliographical background, I will try to highlight some elements concerning the way in which Castoriadis was influenced by Weber’s work as well as the way in which Castoriadis altered, “corrected”, and further developed the Weberian notions, in order to shape his own theoretical universe. Of course, the full exposition of the “dialogue” between the two thinkers would require a whole book. However, within the constraints of this text I plan to sketch an outline of a more complete research and to provide some points for further investigation.


The basic idea, in its most general form, is that both thinkers see the social-historical world as a field in which significations play a very important and, indeed, constitutive role. Society is not to be regarded as something for which a materialistic explanation would ever suffice. If one wants to really grasp the very essence of society, she must try to conceive the meanings which constitute social life, the “world images”, the significations that form the social reality of people, including the value and the importance (or the disvalue and non-importance) with which the “material” elements of life are endowed.

As Weber puts it is, “[n]ot ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men’s conduct. Yet very frequently the ‘world images’ that have been created by ‘ideas’ have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest. ‘From what’ and ‘for what’ one wished to be redeemed and, let us not forget, ‘could be’ redeemed, depended on one’s image of the world.” [3]

For his part, Castoriadis presents an even more radical perception of the constitutive power of “social imaginary significations.” That’s exactly what “imaginary institution of society” means: each society creates for itself a universe of significations, which stem from the “radical social imaginary.” These significations, which are “arbitrary” (that is to say, they cannot have any sort of rational foundation or justification), make the social life what it is. They are embodied in the institutions of each society, they determine what is considered to be real or unreal, rational or irrational, right or wrong, ethical or unethical. As we investigate a society deeper and deeper, “we do arrive at significations that are not there in order to represent something else, that are like the final articulations the society in question has imposed on the world, on itself, and on its needs, the organizing patterns that are the conditions for the representability of everything that the society can give to itself.” [4]

Of course, there are important divergences between the considerations of the two thinkers. Weber’s verstehende Soziologie, for instance, aims at the understanding of the subjective meaning (“subjektiv gemeinter Sinn”) towards which the social actors orient their actions. To Weber’s mind, the meaning is located in the milieu of the individual. Only an individual action can be explained through the understanding of the meaning with which the actor endowed it. [5] Castoriadis, on the contrary, thought that meaning is primarily social imaginary meaning, a “magma” of social imaginary significations. So, he held that the meaning rests principally in the milieu of society. He would ask Weber: where could the individuals find their subjective meanings, if not in a preexisting social world, already full of significations? Moreover, Castoriadis argued that the source of these social significations is the radical social imaginary, which he considered to be his most important contribution to an understanding of societies. Following these thoughts, one can detect how Castoriadis reads Weber. It is my view that he, in fact, radicalizes Weber.

But what does “radicalization” mean in this context? I believe one could put it the following way: Weber thought that the cultural and religious aspects of a society can affect other fields, such as the economy. Different religions provide different subjective significations, towards which individuals can orient their actions. Castoriadis not only agrees here, but also raises the stakes. The imaginary of a society (and religion is of course a type of social imaginary) not only affects the rest of society by providing individuals with subjective meanings; it furthermoreinstitutes that society as such. In other words, the social imaginary makes each society what it is, and individuals what they are. Such significations are not merely something that “exists” in society, an element that happens to be a part of the social world. The imaginary institution – the creation of social institutions, which embody and express the magma of each society’s imaginary significations– is the proper mode of being of the social-historical world.

So, in its most general form, the Castoriadian radicalization of Weber consists in the much deeper –and indeed ontological– way in which Castoriadis conceives the “meaning.” Castoriadis takes the Weberian idea, according to which meaning, namely individual significations and ideas, as well as collective and religious “world images,” affect the actions of individuals or even influence various social domains, and he further elaborates it, deepens it and finally makes it work in an “ontogenetic” level. In other words, he ascribes to the social meaning (the “social imaginary significations”) an absolutely constitutive (or “instituting”, in his own terms) role; constitutive of the amazing particularity of each historical society; but also constitutive of the “mode of being” of the social-historical field as such in general. Society is a world of imaginary meaning.

Following from this theorization of the particular ontology of societies emerges a similar radicalization, concerning the “arbitrariness” of values and significations. Weber believes that the ultimate values of civilizations and men are arbitrary and cannot be rationally proved or disproved – that is what he calls Wert-polytheismus, value-polytheism. His whole methodology is based upon the idea that we cannot provide a universally valid foundation for our normative ideas. However, for Weber this remark only comes from the observance of the empirical reality.[6] He doesn’t try to offer a deeper explanation about it. In a way, it is just an “intuition” of his asserting, like Hume did, that one cannot derive an “Ought” out of an “Is.”

Castoriadis readily agrees with the impossibility of solid foundation of values, but offers in addition a deeper ontological reason for this impossibility. As we know, he holds that social values stem from the creative spontaneity of the instituting social imaginary. That’s exactly why they could never be proved rationally, since, as we have seen, the social imaginary significations are the source of the specific form of rationality of each society. They determinewhat is to be considered rational and irrational and even real or unreal. In other words, values and social meanings are presupposed by each society’s rational way of thinking.

To sum up, comparing to Weber, Castoriadis ascribes to social meanings a much more profound, and indeed “ontogenetic”, role in the institution of societies. That’s why one might say that understanding (Verstehen) isn’t for him just a methodological principle, but a perceptive way thatcorresponds to the proper ontology of the social-historical world[7]

In the remaining of the text I will address some specific philosophic “areas” where the signs of this radicalization are apparent.


Having set the general background of the reasons for which a comparative research regarding these two thinkers could be fruitful, I will know try to show how further exploration of their intellectual relationship can be useful for the elucidation of more specific domains of their works, namely those regarding the notions of power and politics, truth and modernity.

a. Power and Politics

The perception of society as a field where significations play a constitutive role has important implications about the way Castoriadis and Weber see power and, by extension, politics. Since everything in the social world is intermediated by meaning, one cannot regard power as something purely violent or materialistic.

At this point, I believe that Max Weber has been misinterpreted to a large extent. One of his most famous citations, that even found its way into the common language, is the one regarding the “monopoly of the violence” of the State. Even when the quote is properly cited (Weber specifically speaks of the “monopoly of the legitimate, that is, of the considered as legitimate, violence”), the accent is put on violence and not on legitimization. Nothing could be further from the truth of Weber’s thought. The German thinker extensively deals with the ways in which power can be legitimized, accepted as legal. His distinction between Macht (physical force) and Herrscaft (political dominance or power) focuses on the legitimization of force through the mediation of traditional, rational, or charismatic procedures – procedures in which the meaning with which the social actors “dress” the physical force is crucial.

In the same line of thought, Castoriadis highlights the primacy of legitimization of power over physical force. Again, radicalizing Weber’s views, he locates the legitimacy of power in the milieu of imaginary significations. He asserts that “The throne of the Lord of signification stands above the throne of the Lord of violence. The voice of the arms can only begin to be heard amid the crash of the collapsing edifice of institutions.”[8]

b. Truth in the field of social sciences

Interestingly, both Weber and Castoriadis tried to combine the fluidity, plurality and inherent irrationality of social significations, on the one hand, with values of scientific rigor and clarity on the other.

Weber’s basic methodological principles are well known. He holds that social scientists could never have “direct” or “unmediated” access to the material they examine. Even the very context of important questions, which determine what deserves to be investigated, is always mediated by the cultural values of a society in which scientists live and by the personal values and interests of each scientist – values and interests that are, of course, according to Weber’s value-polytheism, “arbitrary”.

So, as history moves on, cultural and personal values change, which means that the “important questions”, the ones that define what deserves to be known, also change. Different societies, but also different scientists, will thus focus on different aspects of the “raw material” of reality. This is why social scientists necessarily work constructing “ideal types”, polished theoretical constructions that do not exist as such in the real world, but are useful as heuristic instruments with which social reality’s infinite complexity is compared.

Thus what was once considered by one scientist as mere “noise” might one day be seen by another scientist as a crucial aspect of the “real” and vice versa. It is clear that the intermediations between observer and reality are so numerous and important, that one could come to believe that no real knowledge can exist–only constructions. Nevertheless, Weber insists that, once the point of view of the scientist is determined and if there is sufficiency of the empirical data, a scientist can produce “objective” knowledge – that is objectively valid from this particular point of view. Much of his methodological work strives to prove precisely this point.

Here again, Castoriadis agrees with Weber but also radicalizes him. First of all, he writes explicitly that Max Weber’s values are social imaginary significations.[9] As we have seen, for Castoriadis these significations are also “arbitrary” and irrational, stemming from the social imaginary’s creative power. Consistent to his own philosophical perception, Castoriadis readily accepts that intellectuals and scientists always look at the reality through the lenses of the imaginary of their society. There is no unmediated access to the real world. Furthermore, each thinker works according to her own subjective criteria, philosophical and theoretical presuppositions. In a typically Weberian utterance, Castoriadis writes that the best way to confront the ineffaceable subjective element of every theoretical distinction is to “make these presuppositions as explicit as possible”. [10]

Despite all this, Castoriadis holds firmly that there are “correct” scientific theories that are not mere constructions, but meet and elucidate the real world. This is even more impressive in Castoriadis than in Weber, since for the former, as mentioned above, imaginary significations determine even what is considered to be real and unreal in a given society. However, he insists that robust knowledge can be achieved both in natural and in social sciences and he takes great efforts to prove his point.[11] “[T]here is truth and (…) it is to be made/to be done(…) [and in order to]attain it, we have to create it, which means, first and foremost, to imagine it”,[12] writes Castoriadis. Deepening Weber’s insights into the significance of values in science, Castoriadis even ascribes a positive role to the imaginary intermediations in the pursuit of truth.

To sum up, the crucial role that social meanings play in the work of Weber and Castoriadis also affects the way they see scientific research and truth. They both agree that truth is always intermediated by social values and significations but they are unwilling to concede that “anything goes”. On the contrary, they fight hard to defend a kind of knowledge that is both relative (relevant to various mediations) and objective (grasping something from the “real world”).

c. Modernity and rationality

Another important influence of Max Weber in the shaping of Castoriadis’ philosophy, can be found in the two thinkers’ discussion of Western capitalist modernity.

The topic is broad and hence I will limit the discussion to a specific but important point. As is widely known, Weber argues that Western modernity is characterized by the “disenchantment of the world” (“Weltentzauberung”) and the ongoing process of rationalization of life: more and more social spheres are submitted to the extension of an instrumental rationality, human relationships become more impersonal, the law more formal and abstract, and State administration is governed by the bureaucratic formalism.

What is interesting is the way in which Weber connects all this elements with the emergence and dominance of the “capitalist spirit”. Weber has famously correlated this spirit with the practical demands of protestant and Calvinist asceticism. Contrary to the ethics of Buddhism, which suggests a departure from the world or this of Confucianism, which advocates a rational adapting to the world, the ethics of Protestantism leads the individual to aim at a rational, organized and energetic change of the world and within the world . A good Protestant must work within this world in a rational and calculated way in order to change it, since he sees himself as instrument of the God.[13]

The similarity is striking, even in terms of the vocabulary used. Castoriadis proposes that one central imaginary signification of capitalism is the “unlimited expansion of ‘rational’ mastery” or “the imaginary signification of unlimited expansion of pseudorational mastery over nature and over humans.”[14] Like Weber before him, he believes that the imaginary signification of rational control over life is crucial in order to understand modern capitalism, since it forms the mentality of people, and is embodied in social institutions such as the bureaucracy, the industrial production, “scientific management”, the modern technoscience etc.

From this perspective, it is no coincidence that Castoriadis, in his writings about the nature of bureaucracy – another topic where his Weberian roots are apparent – doesn’t forget to pay debt to his old teacher and to directly associate Weber’s “capitalist spirit” with his own notion of “social imaginary”: “domination by the bureaucracy appears as the adequate form, par excellence, of domination by the ‘spirit’ of capitalism (here again, Max Weber had seen things much more clearly than Marx) – or, by the magma of social imaginary significations the institution of capitalism realizes.”[15]


To conclude, a comparative analysis of Max Weber’s and Cornelius Castoriadis’ writings has a great deal to offer in social theory, and the theorizing of capitalist society in particular. Such comparative work can be done both on a general philosophical level and in more specific areas and fields, such as the analysis of the bureaucratic phenomenon.

Castoriadis follows Weber’s line of thought, but he also radicalizes it, in order to create his own original theory. Weber writes about values and subjective meanings; Castoriadis speaks of social imaginary significations, which are the source of every value and every individual meaning. Weber’s intuition is that the ethical imperatives of different religions can affect various fields of social life, such as the economy; Castoriadis posits that the social imaginary (a form of which are, of course, the different religions) is the proper creator of each society per se. The social-historical world is the radical and ontological creation of a universe a significations that endow the world with meaning and give to the institutions (language, ethics, production, values, sexual relationships, politics, knowledge) their proper form.

Yannis Ktenas is a Phd Candidate at Panteion University, Athens


[1] Johann Arnason, Philippe Raynaud and Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou are the only scholars I know that have made some remarks about this interesting intellectual relationship.

[2] C. Castoriadis, Protes Dokimes [First Tryouts], Athens: Ypsilon, p. 9.

[3] H. Gerth, C. Mills (edit., transl.), “The social psychology of the world religions”, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 280.

[4] C. Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 91.

[5] However, one must insist on the fact that Weber wasn’t so consistent with his own methodological writings. For example, his magnificent work on the economic ethic of the world religions explicitly focuses on the results that different religions have on social institutions and especially on economic ones. But of course, a religion does not constitute only one or several individual meanings. A religion is a collectivesocial meaning which, according to Weber, has effects on the institution of the economy. To rephrase this in Castoriadis’ terms: it is a social imaginary which institutes the society.

[6] M. Weber, Politics as vocation, p. 12.

[7] See, for example, C. Castoriadis, Philosophia ke epistimi, dialogos me ton G. Evangelopoulo [Philosophy and science, a discussion with G. Enangelopoulos], Athens: Evrasia, p. 81.

[8] C. Castoriadis, “Power, Politics, Autonomy The Social-Historical, the Psyche, the Individual” in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 82.

[9] C. Castoriadis, “Individual, Society, Rationality, History” in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 36.

[10] C. Castoriadis, World in Fragments, p. 16

[11] See e.g. the text “Ontological import of the history of science”, in C. Castoriadis, World in fragments, New York: Stanford University Press, where he develops a series of compelling arguments, which cannot be commented here.

[12] Op. cit., p. 373.

[13] See for instance M. Weber, “The evolution of the capitalistic spirit” in General Economic History, New York: Dover Publications, pp. 352-369.

[14] C. Castoriadis, “The social regime in Russia”, in Castoriadis Reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, p. 237. See also: “The crisis of Culture and the State”, in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 117.

[15] C. Castoriadis, “The social regime in Russia”, p. 231.

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