Repository | Book | Chapter


(2007) Moderne begreifen, Wiesbaden, Deutscher Universitätsverlag.

Imaginary significations and historical civilizations

Johann Arnason

pp. 93-106

The problems of civilizational analysis — more precisely: the comparative analysis of civilizations in the plural — are certainly not absent from Castoriadis's field of inquiry. A particularly striking formulation from his most important work may be quoted as evidence of interest and sensitivity in this regard: "the paradox of history consists in the fact that every civilization and every epoch, because it is particular and dominated by its own obsessions, manages to evoke and to unveil new meanings in the societies that preceded or surround it." (Castoriadis 1987: 34-35) But the complex issues alluded to in this statement were never tackled in a systematic fashion. Castoriadis's main interests lay elsewhere: in the interconnected domains of anthropology, social-historical ontology, political philosophy and critical theory of modernity. To clarify the lessons which civilizational theory might learn from his work, we must therefore reexamine basic concepts and arguments from an angle that was never more than marginal to their context, and shift the focus of debate towards themes more familiar in other quarters. The project of civilizational analysis has a history which we cannot discuss here; suffice it to say that civilizations are defined as macro-cultural and macro-historical units of the kind most often exemplified by the Western Christian, Islamic, Indian or Chinese worlds, and that the concept of civilization will be reserved for the formations known in German as "Hochkulturen", i. e. those which satisfy the conventional criteria for civilized rather than primitive societies. The reference to "historical civilizations' should be taken in this sense. It is true that some pioneering theorists in the civilizational field also applied the concept to primitive societies, but here the historical dimension is essential: the following analysis will to a large extent deal with ways of theorizing the historicity of civilizations, understood as their capacity to mediate between the continuity of cultural orientations and the discontinuity of social dynamics.

Publication details

DOI: 10.1007/978-3-8350-9676-9_6

Full citation:

Arnason, J.P. (2007)., Imaginary significations and historical civilizations, in C. Magerski, R. Savage & C. Weller (eds.), Moderne begreifen, Wiesbaden, Deutscher Universitätsverlag, pp. 93-106.

This document is unfortunately not available for download at the moment.