Tag Archives: Castoriadis

The Polar Mediterranean Imaginary. A Renewed Paradigm by Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Nordicum-Mediterraneum, the scholarly journal where this article is published, has an interesting and almost paradoxical name. It explores the ties between the Arctic and Mediterranean regions. When thinking about these two areas, it is almost guaranteed to have blended glimpses of cold, white and snowy landscapes immersed in dark skies full of dancing northern lights with warm and sunny afternoons by the seashore while enjoying the view of an historic town. However, the concept of mixing these two somewhat opposite geographical sites is not a pioneering idea coming from the creators of this journal.

Without any hostile intention towards the editors, this article presents another academic who dedicated his life attempting to shift inaccurate and misconceived ideas about the Arctic by “fostering the awareness and the understanding concerning the common origins, … intertwining and shared elements” [1] between the Arctic and the Mediterranean.

At first sight it seems almost illogical, or at least contrived, to find meaningful similarities between the Arctic region and any other southern regions of the globe, especially the Mediterranean basin. How can a frozen and inhospitable territory be connected with such a historical region, which is considered the cradle of European and Western civilization? What could be the possible relations between a peripheral zone of the globe, distant from the largest and most influential urban centers, with a central socio-economic and political hub?

This paper intends to introduce a different imaginary about the Arctic and its potential, an imaginary capable of facilitating the comprehension of the Arctic and its multiple players, especially as regards the Southern and Western populations with scarce information and outdated ideas about the North.

The concept of the Polar Mediterranean Imaginary (hereafter PMI) is the chosen one, mostly because it utilizes creatively and insightfully the famous Mediterranean region, which is well-known for its history, culture, economy, and long-lived political reality, but also to establish intriguing relations and parallelisms with the Arctic’s present and future. In fact, this paradigm, proposed almost a century ago, is not particularly well-known by today’s societies, nor is it well-established in academia. However it offers an accurate and rather positive approach regarding the potentialities of the Arctic under a great variety of perspectives.


Arctic Social Imaginaries

The concept of “imaginary” has been gaining more and more influence in research and studies belonging to many different branches within the social sciences [2]. Social imaginaries rely upon individual imagination and require intersubjective interactions, all within a specific socio-environmental context, i.e., an historical people and their actual environment. Hence, social imaginaries are built to help in the organization of communities in a never-ending meaning-giving process [3].

Collective imaginaries are never completely irreplaceable nor universal, since they are the result of dynamic relations and can be rearranged in time. As a matter of fact, the 20th -century philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis (hereafter CC) offers a very interesting insight regarding the “Social Imaginaries” [4].

Metaphorically, and quite aptly in the Icelandic context, CC compares the incessant flow of images, thoughts, ideas, and conflicts thereof, that any given socio-cultural imaginary exhibits in history with “successive formations of volcanic lava that almost never entirely solidify”, for each imaginary may seem to “preserve itself”, but in fact “it never ceases to alter itself.” [5] [6] .

The relationship between human imagination and the imaginary is the present article’s starting point to understand how the Arctic has been variously conceived of, i.e., imagined or comprehended, especially by Western and Westernized societies throughout the centuries, i.e., as a remote and distant territory with very reduced contact with the southern regions.

For most of its history, information in the West about the Arctic was scanty, especially when compared with other parts of the globe. The remoteness of the location, its harsh weather and geographical setup made the North a hard place to reach. On top of that, the information available was chiefly from reports by ancient sailors and old manuscripts [7]. Those sources helped to identify the existence of a northern region, by providing some clues of what the Arctic could be – the West’s (Arctic) social imaginaries.

Arctic Social Imaginaries are a set of ideas which were a product of collective efforts, not just individual ones. These ideas, consequently, may spread and, above all, are created through communication networks [8]. Thus, the Arctic itself has often been seen as a frozen wasteland and as being utterly inhospitable, according to the meanings produced and projected by southern and, culturally speaking [9], Western/ized societies [10].

For much of Western recorded history, governments and educated communities never looked to the Far North as an obvious opportunity to prosper. In other words, their specific and decisive imaginaries were interiorized, and fictions were embedded, turned into rules or “truths” that took the Arctic as a region of the world without significant potential, and despite the fact that certain human communities had actually managed to survive there for numerous generations [11].

Yet, the contemporary Arctic reality is marked by enormous socio-economic potentialities, just like the Arctic’s own history and legacy, i.e., the imaginaries developed by its native communities. As we will explain, the West’s interest in the northernmost region of the planet has shifted quite abruptly, especially during the last two centuries. Thus, in keeping with CC’s own metaphor, new layers of lava have been erupting and modifying the composition of old imaginaries, engendering eventually new ones.


Unveiling of the Arktos from a Mediterranean Perspective

The Arctic is a region characterized by unique features, such as its geographical remoteness from the world’s centers of global socio-cultural power, harsh weather conditions, richness in natural resources, and extraordinary biodiversity.

Composed politically today of 8 recognized States, the northmost territory of the globe can also be named “the Circumpolar North”, since the region includes, in the shared imaginary of contemporary experts and key local actors, the Arctic and Subarctic zones [12]. In truth, the Arctic itself does not have clear borders, because any such geographical determination results from the combination of geophysical, political, and social factors and conceptions [13]. All these culturally mediated forces have contributed to the construction of cultural ideas that define the historical Arctic imaginaries and determine the global understanding of the region as a region.

As a result, the Arctic can be seen from many different perspectives. On the one hand, the northernmost region of the globe is the home of different Indigenous Peoples [14]. Indigenous populations have established themselves in it many millennia ago, each group possessing their own perspectives and cosmologies regarding their living place [15] [16]. On the other hand, due to its remoteness and distant location from other civilizations and socio-economic hotspots, the Artic has been an almost unreachable/impenetrable place that led many southerner cultures to “forget” altogether about its existence and focus on their proximities instead [17].

To begin with, as regards the prevalent imaginary in Western culture, we should observe that the etymology of the name “Arctic” derives from the Greek word arktos, which means “bear”, because the Ursa Major (“the Great Bear”) is the constellation that applies to the polar region in the northern hemisphere, at least according to classical Graeco-Roman astronomy. It was during the apogee of the Greek Era that the Circumpolar North started to be imagined by important scholars and philosophers, who characterized the northernmost territories as inaccessible and remote places connoted with a mythical and mystical background [18].

Centered in the Mediterranean region, Classic Antiquity played an important role in determining the Western conception of the Arctic as an essentially unknown zone located at the outer limits of the human world. Reportedly, the first known contact with the Circumpolar territories was achieved by the Greek merchant and explorer, Pytheas of Massilia, who went sailing over the north Atlantic. His odyssey culminated with the discovery of the Island of Thule, “the most septentrional of the Islands of Brittany.” [19] Pytheas’ new description of the northern region had a large impact on his contemporary intellectuals (mainly cosmographers), who contributed to shape a more detailed Arctic imaginary.

At the apogee of the Roman Empire, especially through the migratory fluxes to and from the ‘barbaric’ regions of the North, a few more mysteries were uncovered. More populations were made contact with, and an increase in the knowledge about the septentrional areas of Europe was facilitated [20]. Nevertheless, the conception of the Arctic as an essentially unknown zone located at the outer limits of the human world persisted, to a great extent.

For many centuries, the West’s prevalent Arctic imaginary inherited from Greek and Roman times remained stable, up to the Renaissance, i.e., the so-called “Age of Discovery”, when long sailing explorations took place. Navigators such as Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan opened the trend of maritime routes to new continents ready to be explored and, more often than not, plundered. The economic drive, combined with the renewed interest in the knowledge accumulated by Classic Antiquity about these regions of the world, and the legacies from older scholars and intellectuals, led to considerable improvements in the cartography of these regions. Thus, a more exact geographical grasp about the Arctic was built and, eventually, about the local inhabitants as well [21]. The Western imaginary of the Arctic started to change, as a result.

After the 16th century, on the basis of the European trends in navigating the oceans and, from Europe’s point of view, in exploring entirely new regions of the globe, the one surrounding the North Pole got on the spotlight too. Explorers started trying to sail and study those seas, in order to understand what economic and scientific potentials and other opportunities there could be in the Arctic. For instance, the possibility of a transpolar route that could connect the North Atlantic to China gained considerable traction. This theory, despite being very ambitious, was eventually proved to be beyond reach, due to the very harsh weather conditions and the many geophysical obstacles encountered, above all, by Mercator. Likewise, other navigators could not successfully prove the existence of a north-west passage to the Pacific Ocean [22].

The last steps of Arctic exploration were marked by the discovery of the Spitzbergen archipelago by Wilhelm Barents, while navigating over the northern seas. The inclusion of newfoundland territories had a tremendous impact in Westerners’ understanding of the septentrional regions. After the 19th century, reaching the North Pole became the main goal for the leading European Powers. Important expeditions were made in order to reach it and unveil the most ‘mysterious’ parts of the Arctic region. Many explorers (Captain Perry, Fridtjof Nansen, to mention few) attempted this feat, without success, but their contributions helped to modify the perceptions of the North and how it was imagined. It was only in 1909, when Robert Peary reached the pole by dog-sledge, that this long-sought goal was fulfilled.

All such endeavors contributed to a parallel evolution of thought in the 19th and 20th century, such that the focus moved onto crossing and exploring the Arctic qua valuable and possibly profitable destination in se, rather than as an instrumental route capable of facilitating the access from the Atlantic regions to the Orient [23].


Vilhjalmur Stefansson – The Mission and Roots of a New Imaginary

The Icelandic-Canadian-American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson (hereafter VS) introduced the concept of “Polar Mediterranean” in 1920, whereby he highlighted how the Arctic Ocean was a relatively navigable central space that united diverse coastal peoples in commerce and productive interaction. In other words, his perspective was a friendly one, based on a historically successful case of international human transactions at many levels, thanks primarily to a shared navigable sea. VS’ perspective stood in opposition to the ones that had been embraced by previous Arctic explorers, who had seen the region as merely hazardous for human survival, and certainly most dangerous from the point of view of navigation  [24].

To understand the relevance of PMI, it is necessary to consider VS’ ideas and the way he perceived the North, along with its key players. His mission and focus were to clarify ideas and reeducate the southern communities (European and American) about the Arctic. VS was more than an anthropologist. He was a man on a mission. As a matter of fact, the scholarly literature about him often states that his work as an adventurer overshadows his anthropological career and personal life [25].

VS’ explorations were essential to establish a seminal yet stable contact with some isolated Arctic communities, and to discover new places that were unknown by the Western nations. Additionally, detailed descriptions and reflections exposing wrong Arctic ideals such as “The eternal polar silence” [26] and “The Polar Ocean is without life” [27] helped his readers to better understand the Arctic’s biodiversity, climate, and many other aspects that were not very clear until then to both specialists and non-specialists.

The preoccupation of introducing to Western nations new conceptions of the Circumpolar region was a fundamental step for a more accurate understanding of it. A transformation of old imaginaries was central for VS in both his field research and writings. VS even jokingly suggested the creation of a “National University of Polite Unlearning”, a concept created by one of VS’s teachers (Samuel Crothers) at Harvard University [28]. It was meant as a place where people could go to clear up the wrong ideas acquired in school, at the university, or through the mass media. Despite the sarcastic tone of this concept, its critical focus was very precise. VS himself wanted to help the dissemination of a new Arctic imaginary. He intended it to be his legacy.

Therefore, it was no surprise that throughout his career, VS gave numerous lectures and conferences throughout the US, Canada and Europe. These talks were a good opportunity to share his discoveries and experiences to audiences that had only a rather primitive idea about the Arctic. Even after his campaigns, VS describes his mission as one of shifting mentalities: “I wanted to remain south to continue my campaign of education with regard the Arctic sections of geography textbooks, and in general to influence school and university teaching” [29].

VS published numerous notes that reveal some rather interesting and curious reflections about many Arctic exploration topics. These transcripts offered, among other things, a first-person report about the diet in the North, the advantages of snow when compared with rain, and the importance of sled dogs in the northern communities [30].

As a matter of fact, throughout his books and diaries, and whilst always keeping a visionary and pedagogical mindset. VS approaches issues that are elemental for life in the North and, parallelly, are not trivial for most of the southerners either – as he wondered: “is the Arctic region barren and its nature hostile to life or is it hostile merely to life of a southern type and to men who live like southerners” [31]?



As mentioned above, VS emphasizes the necessity of introducing new data essential to create a solid structure of knowledge regarding a largely unknown territory. The remodulation of ancient socio-cultural imaginaries assumes for him a central role that can be achieved if and only if there is new data and a capacity for transmitting a message effectively. However, this a lengthy and complex process of demystification of well-established ideas: “If the average American or European university graduate has 10 ideas about the North, 9 of them are wrong. So far as the victims of American education are concerned, I know from experience. As to the Europeans, I judge them by their books and conversation” [32] [33] .

It was with this aim of fighting back the general ignorance about the Arctic and outdated social imaginaries that VS devised the concept of “Polar Mediterranean”. By presenting the Circumpolar North, not as a remote and inaccessible place, but rather as a friendly center connecting different cultures, territories, and resources, capable of making human flourishing a concrete possibility in this region [34] — “[VS] visualized the Arctic Sea as one great Mediterranean, not only in the sense that is a rather small ocean surrounded by populated lands, but also in the sense that it could be useful to the world as quick and relatively easy transportation route between import cities” [35] .

VS adopts a positive posture regarding the upcoming events by comparing the discovery of circumnavigation of the globe with the new understanding of the Arctic that he promoted: “When the world was once known to be round, there was no difficulty in finding many navigators to sail around it. When the polar regions are once understood to be friendly and fruitful, men will quickly and easily penetrate their deepest recesses” [36].

Contemporary academics have been taking this imaginary very seriously in order to understand the Arctic and its potential development in the upcoming decades. Indeed, in his works, VS writes of the advent of his day’s new transportation technologies (airplanes, submarines, ships and zeppelins) [37] that would facilitate the movement of people and goods, integrate diverse communities, enhance navigation across the ocean, and allow the region to emerge as a new epicenter of civilization [38] .

In particular, VS focusses on those means of transportation that can act as facilitators in the achievement of an Arctic Mediterranean, even if official governments and Western society had not realized that such a process could be occurring: “Although realizing the applicability of both aircrafts and submarines to commerce and warfare in our own latitudes, we have not adequately realized their significance in solving after four hundred years the problem of the northwest passage and giving us at last a short route from Europe to Far East” [39].

Moreover, his emphasis on the different economic activities that are possible to develop in the Arctic region suggests that the Far North is bound to become an indispensable economic, infrastructural, and socio-cultural center for the South too [40] . Hence, based on all the above-mentioned aspects, one of the core references about PMI was so written by VS: “A glance at a map of the northern hemisphere shows that in the Arctic Ocean is in effect a huge Mediterranean. It lies between its surrounding between Europe and Africa. It has in the past been looked as an impassible Mediterranean. In the near future it will not only become passable but will become a favorite route, at least at certain times of the year, safer, more comfortable, and much shorter than any route that lies over the oceans that separate the present-day centers of population” [41] .

VS intended with his paradigm to send a clear message: transpolar corridors assume a front role in the development and accessibility to the North (as mentioned/cited above); furthermore, the Arctic is not a wasteland, a resourceless region without capacity to prosper.

VS’ concern with offering a more accurate vision about the Circumpolar geography and culture ends up with his prophetic visions about the future potentialities of the Arctic Sea: “Whoever has any grasp at all of the great natural resources of the polar regions and of the conditions under which they are about to be developed, will have fascinating dreams about any number of other transpolar routes destined to come into common use whenever air travel itself becomes a commonplace in the more dangerous but already speculatively accepted routes between Liverpool and New York, San Francisco and Hawaii and Japan” [42] .

Hence, economic activities and the available resources of the North were diligently highlighted by VS. His appeal for economic investment all around the far North is economically justified by the geostrategic location of the Arctic Ocean, insofar as it connects three different continents and two oceans.

However, to be ethically, legally and politically justified, global connections and profit-maximization by exploitation of the Arctic resources must also be able to secure the local populations’ first needs, such as food and health-care services, as well as many secondary ones, lest they meet opposition and resistance [43]. Remarkably, VS developed arguments on this subject in an almost prescient chapter devoted entirely to “Arctic Industries” and focusing on the economic future of the region. He declares that economic development largely depends on the solid development of local infrastructures: “Local food production is fundamental in every permanently occupied land. It furnishes a basis for a stable population, it makes easy the development of industries which, although based in minerals, cannot well flourish when all the food needed has to be brought from a great distance” [44] .

In spite of being mere predictions (some of them rough, of course), he opened the window to a new Arctic region capable of being connected with the southern and global hubs. In other words, PMI can still bring a fresh perspective towards the general understanding of the Arctic, and the interactions among its human and institutional players. In particular, as VS depicts this reality in 1922: “the polar sea is like a hub from which continents radiate like the spokes of a wheel” [45] .


An Eventful Century

Since PMI’s first reference in 1920, a little more than a century has passed. During this period, the way to understand the Arctic and its social imaginaries have changed drastically. In fact, the first 100 years since PMI’s initial proposal were marked by many historic events that helped to shape international relations in the Arctic region and, haphazardly, push it in the direction envisioned by VS.

Two global wars, World War II (WW2) and the Cold War, were conflicts mirroring opposite political ideologies, using the world as a battlefield. The control of larger strategic territories became fundamental for the security of the different States. The Arctic was no an exception, and several States realized the geostrategic importance of the northernmost regions for their security and access to other parts of the globe [46].

‘Thanks’ to WW2 and the Cold War, the Arctic became a vital place for Arctic States such as the United States, the USSR and Canada, which aspired to influencing, if not controlling, all intercontinental movements of goods and peoples in the region.

Simultaneously, the North experienced exponential scientific, technological, and infrastructural advancements as a direct outcome of these global conflicts, which also improved accessibility and services around the region [47]. The warlike atmosphere also gave space to the natural sciences across different areas (e.g., oceanography, geology, and geography) to generate new knowledge and new perspectives about the Arctic. Inevitably, with the development of better aerial and aquatic transportation vehicles, and with the building of modern infrastructure aimed at facilitating the further exploration of the northernmost regions, the Arctic became a military and geostrategic site [48].

The 20th century clearly put the Arctic region on the map. Like VS suggested, science and technology contributed to a better knowledge and, eventually, increased cooperation in the region, making the PMI a more viable option [49]. A new paradigm of the Arctic was clearly brewing. Finally, among the outputs of scientific knowledge and strategic concerns stood out the Arctic States’ investments into infrastructures (e.g., airports, roads, buildings, harbors) that became valid promoters of regional development [50].

Despite not being characterized by VS’ friendly approach, these wars and confrontations also highlighted how the Arctic had passed from a mere transition point to a geostrategic center [51].

The end of the Cold War era brought increased peace and stability to the Arctic region, and helped to develop a new cooperative and diplomatic reality [52]. The world changed, and social imaginaries were once again reshaped – the North became closer to be seen as the proposed PMI. In other words, more globalized, connected, and accessible in terms of information/knowledge, goods and (inter)national cooperation.

Since then, initiatives focusing on Polar matters and respective strategies of cooperation have taken different shapes, but are nevertheless legion.

For example, we can list: the foundation of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy in 1991 (Rovaniemi Declaration) and the Arctic Council in 1996 (Ottawa Declaration), involving simple intergovernmental agreements; the Northern Forum of 1991, giving voice to subnational subjects and their respective interests, usually different from their national governments; the Inuit Circumpolar Conference of 1977 and the International Arctic Science Committee of 1990; and even the launching of the University of the Arctic (2001), which did not have a governmental root but has constituted an important platform for the research, discussion, and promotion of Arctic-related matters, ranging from social work to natural science [53].

The Arctic region was a very active place of these shifts, in fact, still is. The scientific advancements also unveiled the existence of climate change and its dire consequences for the planet, especially the Polar regions [54]. Warmer temperatures have a direct impact on the biodiversity and geographic composition of the Arctic, which can be seen, simultaneously, as a menace and/or an opportunity. This trend raised considerable awareness during 20th century and, since then, it has caught much attention from governments, international organizations, and national as well as local communities [55].


How Does the Mediterranean Basin Mirror the Arctic?

Unlike the Arctic, the Mediterranean region has been an epicenter of Western socio-cultural and economic interactions for many centuries. Its history is well-documented, and a varied number of civilizations have thrived along its shores. A multicultural environment has always been surrounding the basin. The unique geography and climate have also played a big role in the development of the region.

In spite of being diametrically opposite in many respects, both the Mediterranean and the Arctic regions have similarities and nuances that allow them to be compared, as done creatively and insightfully by VS. This comparison is the core element of his PMI, because it aims to find those significant parallelisms that can help us to comprehend what could possibly happen in the future of the Arctic.

The Mediterranean basin is characterized by an agglomeration of fragmented landscapes that are densely interconnected [56]. Indeed, the variety of local communities and the possibility for mutual communication led also to the promotion of three major religions within a relatively small area, underlining the richness of the social imaginaries in the region. These paths proved essential for the regional and global development of numerous societies and their imaginaries. Hence, the Mediterranean Sea and the adjacent rivers had the role of uniting, instead of disjoining [57].

Historically, despite its conflicts and contradictions, the Mediterranean basin provided an ideal environment promoting trade and socio-cultural interactions through the establishment of routes over millennia. Mediterranean civilizations had a great influence on world development at large, and could be seen as pivotal merchant and cultural highways that stimulated prosperity and growth [58]. Well-established economic and cultural routes throughout the Mediterranean Sea could then play a function as mediators between the central territory and other regions or continents, i.e., a hub or transition point where other cultures could trade different goods and ideas.

As the historian Fernand Braudel underlines: “The rule has been that Mediterranean civilization spreads far beyond its shores in great waves that are balanced by continual returns (…) The circulation of man and goods, both material and intangible, formed concentric rings around the Mediterranean. We should imagine hundred frontiers, not one, some political, some economic, and some cultural.” [59].


Future Transpolar Routes?

The Arctic’s future is definitely connected with the necessity of being more accessible and open to the southern regions. As mentioned above, the idea of Transpolar Routes dates back to the 16th and 17th century, when there was considered the existence of a path capable to link the Atlantic Ocean to China. It was VS, however, who insisted and envisioned a future for the Arctic region based on (Transpolar) Sea Routes. In VS’ own writings, hints abound at ways in which the Arctic peoples have been capable to accept and adjust to the presence of strangers, who are bound to become more and more numerous in the future, given also how “[t]he transpolar route will become more important decade by decade” [60].

Sea routes constitute an important economic value, but they can also have a tremendous social-cultural impact on the development of the regions, in many negative senses too. Nevertheless, the cementation of transpolar pathways takes time, but by being aware of such possibilities the local Arctic communities can develop strategies to generate income, infrastructure, and services, whilst preparing for any negative impact as well. Finally, it is important not to forget that an accessible and connected Arctic can excel in the assimilation of a Polar identity, especially in a globalized world.

As Fernand Braudel wrote: “The different regions of Mediterranean are connected not by the water but by the peoples of the sea” [61]. This statement can be linked with the contemporary Arctic Imaginaries aiming to establish a new North, which is connected, i.e., not isolated and apart. To a relevant extent, the Arctic has the background and the potential to pursue such a path, i.e., the transpolar routes [62], which would then be capable of offering reliable solutions to the modern and future global community. All of this, of course, as long as we are willing and able to pursue the socio-economic development of the region in an adaptative and sustainable way, i.e., such that it does not threaten international peace, local stability, and human survival.

Parallelly, geography and climate also play a crucial role in the PMI and its future. As mentioned above, both the Arctic and Mediterranean regions have unique characteristics. The geographical boundaries of the Mediterranean Sea are set by a long and jagged coastline. However, this region is more than its sea, or even its coastline, insofar as the radius of influence embraces the adjacent territories from its edges for millions of square kilometers in the hinterlands [63]. Simultaneously, the Arctic is a peripherical region, with less population when compared with the south, but with an extended and also jagged coastline that, allied with the climate and septentrional location, offers a pristine diversity of natural resources (i.e., terrestrial and oceanic). As a result, the Arctic Ocean is a place where peripheries connect.

The predictions regarding the rising of the modern transpolar routes started with VS and are part of the remarkable importance of his legacy. Even though his expectations are not an exact mirror of what happens nowadays, they nonetheless cleared the horizon, so to speak. The new PMI intended to substituted old socio-cultural and political imaginaries into a renewed portrait of the Far North, i.e., a region with a huge diversity of possibilities and far more accessible than it had been thought for centuries: “Accordingly, most of us will get a wider view of the commercial, political, and military future of the world when we realize that the airplane, the dirigible, and the submarine are about to turn the polar ocean into a Mediterranean and about to make England and Japan, Norway and Alaska, neighbors across the northern sea.” [64].


Concluding Reflections

The PMI is a set of ideas originated in order to provide a dynamic and informed conception of the Arctic, promoting an interactive and constructive relation among all the involved players, immersed in their unique geo-cultural surroundings. VS was, to a certain extent, the decisive bridge between the past and the present beliefs about the Arctic. The originality of his ideas earned him the title as the so-called “Prophet of the North” [lxv]. He helped to enlarge the factual comprehension of the local human component, the international divulgation of the region’s potentialities, and the creation of a new way of looking at all things Arctic, i.e., his PMI.

The Arctic region was deemed to be an inaccessible and inhospitable zone, and yet started to be seen as a hub connecting different cultures, States, and socio-economic realities. The frozen and seemingly impassable Arctic Ocean turned into a region “conceived as a land to promote peripheries and not a center” [65]. VS openly pointed out to a conception of the North as a middle point that unites geographically opposite regions, instead of an inaccessible barrier or wasteland.

From the first reference of PM (during the inter-war period) until the first decade of the 21st century, the North slowly became a zone of dialogue and cooperation, promoting all kinds of environmental protections and cooperative projects for sustainable development in the Arctic. The Arctic reality has truly shifted exponentially in the last century. These shifts bringing not only more opportunities but also a plausible threat to what the Arctic is. It is not possible to dissociate the climate, the geography and, of course, its peoples. VS drew the attention for northernmost region in a very positive and friendly way, where everyone could benefit from a more developed and accessible Arctic. However, trends like environmental changes and globalization can also be menaces to the identity of the Polar regions.

PMI is, nevertheless, an interesting approach and worth to be put into table as paradigm to approach the future. A viable balance and a sensible strategy must be obviously thought of in order to not destroy the Arctic’s individuality, its own unique heritage, and constructively capitalize on its potential benefits.

From the early stage of Humanity, the Mediterranean Region has been occupied by many different cultures, traditions and customs, some of them having still a very big presence and impact in modern societies (e.g., the Latin alphabet, Roman law, classical canons of beauty). The dynamic history of this region can serve as a potential source of information for the Arctic. Mark Twain said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Parallelly, by understanding the importance of the Mediterranean and how it developed, and using it as a reference point, the PMI can provide the Arctic at least some of the required knowledge to be prepared for the future. With that information, Arctic players can have more tools to negotiate their interests and preserve their cultural identity.



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Steinberg PE and others, Contesting the Arctic: Politics and Imaginaries in the Circumpolar North (IBTauris 2015) <http://www.bloomsburycollections.com/book/contesting-the-arctic-politics-and-imaginaries-in-the-circumpolar-north> accessed 9 February 2021

Stephenson SR, ‘Confronting Borders in the Arctic’ (2018) 33 Journal of Borderlands Studies 183

Vaughan R, The Arctic: A History (A Sutton 1994)

Young O, ‘Governing the Arctic: From Cold War Theater to Mosaic of Cooperation’ (2005) 11 Global Governance 9



[1] This sentence was surgically taken from the editorial policy section of the Nordicum-Mediterraneum (https://nome.unak.is/wordpress/editorial-policy/), and perfectly suits the aim of both Vilhjalmur Stefansson and this journal.

[2] The concepts of ‘idea’ and ‘imaginary’ are quite complex and relate to different fields, ranging from history, philosophy, as well as psychology, to anthropology and much else. Hence, for this research, I have only emphasized some crucial and brief points in order to help the reader to grasp the notions of ‘imagination’ and ‘imaginary’.

[3] Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (MIT Press 1987) 117.

[4] This article is based on Cornelius Castoriadis’ (CC) legacy. The Greek French philosopher provides a solid philosophical background that helps to understand how social imaginaries work. He put “imagination” at the very center of his understanding of reality. In particular, he suggested that there are important connections between the individual faculty of “imagination” (i.e., a person’s ability to produce new images, hence ideas or concepts) and the social “imaginaries” (i.e., the complex symbolic networks that we also call “cultures”), without which no society and no individual could ever survive. As a matter of fact, for CC, the human faculty of imagination is the basis of social organization and the possibility of autonomy, i.e., self-rule, both individually and socially

[5] Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou and Marianna Fotaki, ‘A Theory of Imagination for Organization Studies Using the Work of Cornelius Castoriadis’ (2015) 36 Organization Studies 321, 325.

[6] Castoriadis (n 3) 124.

[7] Richard Vaughan, The Arctic: A History (A Sutton 1994) 35–39.

[8] Yuval N Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Vintage 2015) 26–42.

[9] Vilhjalmur Stefansson, The Friendly Arctic (The Macmillan Company 1921) 10–13 <http://archive.org/details/friendlyarctic017086mbp> accessed 1 March 2021.

[10] “West” and “Western” identify cultures originating from Western Europe in a geographic sense, but there exist also many “Westernized” cultures across the globe, given the West’s pervasive influence over the past four centuries, e.g., the US and Australia.

[11] Vilhjalmur Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (The Macmillan Company 1924) 42–50.

[12] Lassi Heininen and Chris Southcott, Globalization and the Circumpolar North (University of Alaska Press 2010) 1.

[13] ‘Boundaries of the Arctic Council Working Groups | GRID-Arendal’ <https://www.grida.no/resources/8387> accessed 8 September 2023.

[14] Mary Durfee and Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Arctic Governance in a Changing World (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group 2019) 9–11 <https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442235649/Arctic-Governance-in-a-Changing-World> accessed 1 March 2021.

[15] Joan Nymand Larsen and Nordic Council of Ministers (eds), Arctic Social Indicators: ASI II ; Impletation (Nordic Council of Ministers 2014) 23.

[16] The “Far North” started to become populated after the migration routes of “Super Eurasian Family” reached the Northern Circle. In fact, between 40,000 and 15,000 BC, various populations started to occupy the northern parts of Eurasia and, gradually, reached the Northern Circle territories either by boat or on foot. Based on these migratory patterns, different groups took different paths, in what was a mixture between the shared instinct of survival, flexible adaptations to the features of the surrounding environments, and the creative development of unique techniques.

[17] Níels Einarsson (ed), Arctic Human Development Report (Stefansson Arctic Institute 2004) 22–26.

[18] Louis Rey, ‘The Arctic Ocean: A “Polar Mediterranean”’ in Louis Rey (ed), The Arctic Ocean: The Hydrographic Environment and the Fate of Pollutants (Palgrave Macmillan UK 1982) <https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-05919-5_1> accessed 26 March 2022.

[19] ibid 5.

[20] Federico Actite, ‘Ancient Rome and Icelandic Culture – A Brief Overview’ (2009) 4 Nordicum-Mediterraneum 1–2.

[21] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II: Volume I, vol I (Fontana Press 1990) 226–230.

[22] Earl Parker Hanson, Stefansson, Prophet of the North (Harper & bros 1941) 182.

[23] Philip E Steinberg and others, Contesting the Arctic: Politics and Imaginaries in the Circumpolar North (IBTauris 2015) 6 <http://www.bloomsburycollections.com/book/contesting-the-arctic-politics-and-imaginaries-in-the-circumpolar-north> accessed 9 February 2021.

[24] Stefansson, The Friendly Arctic (n 9) 29.

[25] Gísli Pálsson, Travelling Passions: The Hidden Life of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (UPNE 2005) 25.

[26] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 128.

[27] ibid 20.

[28] ibid 20–22.

[29] Hanson (n 22) 178.

[30] Stefansson, The Friendly Arctic (n 9) 354–358.

[31] ibid 162.

[32] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 20.

[33] ibid 22–41.

[34] Klaus Dodds, ‘A Polar Mediterranean? Accessibility, Resources and Sovereignty in the Arctic Ocean’ (2010) 1 Global Policy 303, 308–310.

[35] Hanson (n 22) 182.

[36] Stefansson, The Friendly Arctic (n 9) 6.

[37] In Vilhjalmur Stefansson book The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 8), he devotes the entire chapter VII to those matters.

[38] Kimberley Peters, Water Worlds: Human Geographies of the Ocean (Routledge 2016) ch 2.

[39] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 172.

[40] ibid 120.

[41] ibid 168.

[42] ibid 202.

[43] Joan Nymand Larsen (ed), Arctic Human Development Report: Regional Processes and Global Linkages (Nordic Council of Ministers 2014) 154–155.

[44] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 130.

[45] Vilhjalmur Stefansson, ‘The Arctic as an Air Route to the Future’ (1922) 205–18 National Geographic Magazine 205–18.

[46] Scott R Stephenson, ‘Confronting Borders in the Arctic’ (2018) 33 Journal of Borderlands Studies 183, 187–188.

[47] Ronald E Doel and others, ‘Strategic Arctic Science: National Interests in Building Natural Knowledge – Interwar Era through the Cold War’ (2014) 44 Journal of Historical Geography 60, 77–79.

[48] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 199.

[49] Durfee and Johnstone (n 14) 49.

[50] Doel and others (n 47) 63–66.

[51] Durfee and Johnstone (n 14) 107–108.

[52] Tim Marshall, Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls (Elliott and Thompson Limited 2018) 177–183.

[53] Oran Young, ‘Governing the Arctic: From Cold War Theater to Mosaic of Cooperation’ (2005) 11 Global Governance 9, 9.

[54] Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA). Slide 8

[55] Nymand Larsen (n 43) 142–145.

[56] Eivind Heldaas Seland, ‘Writ in Water, Lines in Sand: Ancient Trade Routes, Models and Comparative Evidence’ (2015) 2 Cogent Arts & Humanities 1110272, 5.

[57] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel: Lectures on Philosophy: The Philosophy of History, The History of Philosophy, The Proofs of the Existence of God (e-artnow 2019).

[58] GH Blake, ‘Settlement and Conflict in the Mediterranean World’ (1978) 3 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 255, 255–256.

[59] Braudel (n 21) 170.

[60] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 178.

[61] Braudel (n 21) 276.

[62] The Arctic has been experiencing the changes brought about by climate change about twice as fast as any other part of the globe. Specifically, Arctic average temperature has risen almost twice the rate as the rest of the world in the past few decades. As a direct result of this phenomenon, there has ensued a growing number of months that are considered “ice-free”, which is a viable economic justification for conceiving of the Far North as allowing the settlement of new transpolar routes, using the Arctic Ocean as a means for traveling and connecting different polar regions and the surrounding continents. The Northern Sea Route, Northwest Passage and Transpolar Sea Route are three of the main corridors mentioned and studied in contemporary academia.

[63] David Abulafia, The Mediterranean in History (Getty Publications 2011) 11.

[64] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 199.

[65] Hanson (n 22) 233–234.

[66] Steinberg and others (n 23) 8.

Stephen Hastings-King, Looking for the Proletariat: Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Problem of Worker Writing (Leiden: Brill, 2014)



The book is about the history of the group from 1949 to 1967, and its aim is to present the movement “as something other than a merely sophisticated variant of revolutionary Marxism” (p. 3). Socialisme ou Barbarie is considered in its specific historical context, when communism is already declined in a political paradigm (Stalinism) and takes shape in bureaucratic structures and institutions. In the first two chapters of the book, the author shows how the Hegelian framework of Marxian writings and its abstract laws are called into question, together with their Stalinist and Trotskyist interpretations. In France, the former give birth to bureaucratization: there is a separation between dirigéants and exécutants, and hierarchies are built according to the role performed inside the PCF (the French Communist Party) or the CGT (the General Work Confederation, that is the communist trade union). The Trotskyists, on the other side, go against the Stalinist falsification of Marxian writings, but they are not revolutionary enough, since they have lost contact with their proletarian basis.

In the third chapter, Stephen Hastings-King points out how Socialisme ou Barbarie, through a historical and sociological interpretation of Marx, makes a phenomenological operation. It tries to assume the point of view of the worker and to analyse production, relations, and language from this perspective. According to what Lefort argues in ‘L’experience prolétarienne’ (1952), one can say that “only workers can know and write about their experience: revolutionary theory must be confined to analysing and interpreting what they write” (p. 108). Socialisme ou Barbarie is fundamentally an intellectual movement, which tries to redefine revolutionary theory through a new reading of Marx and his Leninist interpretation. However, every reflection will remain on an abstract and decontextualized level, if it does not refer to reality: in this case, the latter is represented by the productive life of the working class.

Giving his book the title Looking for the proletariat, Hastings-King wants to show that all the efforts of Socialisme ou Barbarie are aimed at understanding the workers, helping them to acquire class consciousness and to shape political actions. This is the reason why the movement gives prominence to worker writing. The fifth chapter of the book shows how the group, through the newspaper Tribune Ouvrière, tries to give a voice to the collective at the factory of Renault Billancourt, whose political context is clearly defined in the fourth chapter. Hastings-King points out similarities and differences with another worker newspaper, the Detroit-based Correspondence project. After that, the author writes about Tribune Ouvrière and the role that Socialisme ou Barbarie plays in the process of its production, printing, and distribution.

In the sixth chapter, the identity of Daniel Mothé is analysed. His true name is Jacques Gautrat and he works at Renault Billancourt. His experience as a métallo and his revolutionary ideas lead him to write several articles, all of them published in the Socialisme ou Barbarie review. His literary identity is very interesting from a phenomenological perspective, since each “version of Mothé is hyletic: a view from a particular position. Each position is shaped by a certain number of directional social relations. […] The most important of the predicates, the one on which the others rely, that organises and enables them to exist, is the narrative function” (p. 249). Mothé reflects on Gautrat’s experience through the lens of Marxism in its Socialisme ou Barbarie’s interpretation. Sometimes it is not clear if Mothé or Gautrat is speaking, but it does not matter: the idea of a “natural” or “ingenuous” way of writing, supported by the Correspondence group, is rejected by Socialisme ou Barbarie. Every text is a product of self-reflection and self-consciousness.

Mothe’s ‘Journal d’un ouvrier’ is very important to understand how Marxist ideas are experienced by the proletariat: it shows the impact of Fordism on the rhythm and condition of workers, the conflict between the latter and the trade union, which is manipulated by the Communist Party, the attempt to act through independent collectives. The language spoken by the Party has no meaning for the proletariat and sometimes it is used to justify anti-revolutionary actions. According to Mothé and Socialisme ou Barbarie, the only way to save Marxism is to take the point of view of the worker, to support direct-democratic collectives, and to help proletariat in organising its future political actions.

Stephen Hastings-Kings is very precise and punctual in describing the life of the movement, through continuous references to their historical, social, and political context, and an efficient use of their written sources. There are also a bibliography and a clear index, helping the reader to find his way through the book. This work is theoretically well supported by references to Marx and Marxism, and to pivotal authors in phenomenology, especially Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. One should also give credit to Hastings-King for the smoothness of his language.

Reflections on Castoriadis’ “The Crisis of Modern Society”

In his 1965 talk “The Crisis of Modern Society”, Castoriadis retrieves five crises or dimensions (107): (1) axiological; (2) productive; (3) political; (4) familial; (5) educational. While Castoriadis discusses the notion of crisis in other works of his, he focuses therein on one or two of these five specific elements (e.g. (1) in “The Crisis of Culture and the State”, (1) and (3) in “Un monde à venir”, (5) in “Entretien avec Cornelius Castoriadis”). Thus, what makes this particular 1965 talk so interesting is its broader, perhaps more superficial, but undoubtedly more comprehensive scope. In essence, it is as synthetic a picture of what Castoriadis understood as crisis, and particularly as modern crisis, as there can be. Also, it must be noted that Castoriadis revised his assessment of (4) in a later work of his focussed upon crisis (“The Crisis of the Identification Process”), which seems to reduce considerably the relevance of this element. Later assessments of (1)-(3) and (5) do not differ much from what he stated in 1965, instead.

  Continue reading Reflections on Castoriadis’ “The Crisis of Modern Society”

Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift. Interviews & Debates 1974-1997 (translated by Helen Arnold; New York: Fordham University Press, 2010)

In the decades of “Socialisme ou Barbarie”, Castoriadis moved away form Marxist theory and further developed his powerful criticism of the Soviet Union, which he categorized as a bureaucratic party state and eventually a state defined by “stratocracy”, rather than a socialist one. In the beginning of the 1970s he became a French citizen, whilst also quitting his position as an economist at the OECD.

Still he was very active in shifts and turns of the political struggle and in addition to formal written and published texts, some of his important contributions were given in occasional papers and interviews. A selection of these occasional papers and interviews from this period of Castoriadis’ life are published in the book reviewed hereby, A Society Adrift. This is an English translation of the book, which was published originally in French, following a complex editorial affaire caused by the issuing of competing anonymous open-access online translations of Castoriadis’ writings.

The book is divided into two parts. The first one deals with Castoriadis’ basic concepts or problématique, such as the concepts of “autonomy” or the “Project of Autonomy” and “Imaginary significations”. In this part there is also a long interview and revealing reflection from 1974 on the period of “Socialism ou Barbarie”, entitled “Why I am no longer a Marxist”. In the second part of the book there are interviews and texts were his problématique is applied to specific issues.

All in all the collection of texts and the book structure give a comprehensive overview of part of Castoriadis’ career, especially the period after “Socialisme ou Barbarie” had been dissolved. As the editors of the book state in their introduction to the French edition, the book can serve a double purpose. On the one hand it can be a useful guide for those who encounter for the first time Castoriadis’ writings and ideas. On the other hand the book can also serve as a “handy résumé” of Castoriadis’ positions and stands on different issues. For both these purposes there is a useful addition to the texts themselves, because the book has a special chapter comprising an extensive chronology and bio-bibliography, which greatly facilitates the understanding of the context of the different publications and relates them to important facts in Castoriadis’ life. This adds greatly to the value of the book. By the same token, the editors’ note to the French edition and a good deal of their footnotes is very beneficial.

The publication of this collection of texts by Cornelius Castoriadis is in itself a worthy enterprise at any time. To publish it immediately following a major financial collapse in western liberal democracies, which Castoriadis dubbed “liberal oligarchies”, shows indeed an exceptionally good timing. The awakening of the public interest in politics and the general participation of common people in all sorts of protests and discussion on how to rebuild society is in essence an exercise in democratic thinking. It is an exercise in direct and participatory democracy. It questions the representative democracy that has been a “democracy” without “democrats”, leading to the withdrawal of citizens from public affairs, which Castoriadis criticized.

The concepts of the “project of autonomy” and also the notion of the “Imaginary significations” are in fact an interesting framework for the analysis of the present situation in western liberal democracies. They can become a meaningful contribution to the diverse discussion and understanding that is to be found in the wide variety of grass-root and protest movements calling for democracy, democratic participation and the democratic reconstruction of society.

Castoriadis has something to offer present-day radicals. He produces a general theoretical framework that emphasises autonomy in the sense that both individuals and society are aware that they themselves are the continuous creators of laws and regulations of society through direct democracy. But in doing so he also points out to the new radical generation that the answers are not to be found in some external forces, be they liberal phrases like the “rule of law”, the “market economy” or totalitarian conceptions of historical necessity of some sort.

The publication of Castoriadis’ texts and interviews in the book A Society Adrift is thus a well-timed and interesting enterprise. The book itself and its cover are a nice artefact of about 260 pages: the 1926 painting of the Dadaist George Grosz, “Eclipse of the Sun”, is a very fitting picture on the book’s cover!

Ingerid S Straume and J F Humphrey (eds.), Depoliticization: The Political Imaginary of Global Capitalism (Malmö: NSU Press, 2011)

This split, so the thesis goes, aims to stifle any truly creative political critique of our institutions, thereby avoiding genuine structural changes that might hurt private capital’s interests. In this view, ‘depoliticization’ is the diminishing of any public capacity to imagine, create or deploy new forms, such that the depoliticizing political-economy split is an inherently anti-democratic defence of capitalism.

For example, discussion on who should bear the cost of the economic crisis is depoliticised. In business, transnational corporations wriggle out of any democratic scrutiny exercised in national interests. In law, institutions and rights become fixed in a way that can tend to immobilise political thought and action. In the symbolic field, undermining everything, the capacity to think or posit new institutional forms is deadened by fear and indifference.

In this way, runs the thesis, global capitalism feeds on depoliticization, so capitalists promulgate it until the freedom and autonomy of a political life is no longer possible. This authoritarian state is, the book suggests, the inevitable and imminent outcome. However, this is not so much a warning about fascism’s resurgence. Rather it is an intricate, provocative and mostly quite convincing theoretical elucidation of the subtle, sub-conscious architecture on which the current drift towards authoritarianism is constructed. The benefit of this work lies in the way it points out opportunities for a redesign: reconnecting politics with economy – politicising the debate, imagining and implementing new forms – becomes a key objective with a new and significant value.

Depoliticization assembles its tally of authors from five countries, representing over a dozen disciplines spanning economics, history and philosophy as well as political and social theory. There is a preponderance of Scandinavian contributors, but nevertheless the stated intention is to urge more transnational debate on our (perhaps Western) political fate and legacy.

In accordance with its central theme, the essays are organised in two parts: Economy and Politics. Opening with Straume’s more in-depth look at how the depoliticizing political-economy split leads to personal suffering (principally, it detaches us from reality and creativity), part one goes on to dissect capitalism’s ‘economic logic’. Arnason cites Baechler, Wallerstein, Boltanski and Chiapello to expose not only the irrational ‘spirit’ that underpins its multiple manifestations, but also and critically, the social-historical context that spawns it all. D T Cochrane’s ‘power theory’ harmonises Thorstein Veblen and Castoriadis in order to critique Marx’s Labour Theory of Value and pin down capitalism as ‘the valuation of control’. According to Lundkvist, this control commodity is used unaccountably by an oligarchy of transnational corporations to choke off market competition. Their strategically managed alliances and mergers give the lie to any notion of a ‘global free market’. Instead they spiral inexorably towards a ‘capitalist planned economy’. J F Humphrey rounds off part one by connecting the discussion to the current economic crisis. He draws out from Marx how money transforms from a means of exchange to become the ultimate commodity: production determines distribution, exchange and consumption, such that what is produced has no (social) value other than to satisfy the need for accumulation; or as Cochrane might say, control.

Blinkenberg builds on this in part two, working from Jacques Rancière’s argument that money as power requires the exclusion of ‘virtue’ (or perhaps ‘social value’). Rather, an ‘authoritative allocation of values’ ascribes virtue in order to legitimise acceptable political actors. Here depoliticization is a method of ‘value-neutral’ policing that safeguards the hierarchical distribution of power against democratic egalitarianism. Changing the hierarchy’s regimes for ‘truth-production’ by disclosing the function of truth, is what Foucault sees as the purpose of intellectual and political action, according to Jacobsen. Yet relativism, Foucault’s ‘tyranny of perspectives’, means that any claim to objective truth always proceeds from an infinite regression of fundamental hegemonic discourses, dissolving objectivity. Such impotence is perhaps made manifest in Europe’s Kafkaesque language shift from ‘pedagogy’ and ‘education’ to ‘learning’, as argued by Straume. Commodified and assessed by endlessly uncertain tribunals, ‘learning’ comes packed with a capitalist payload of quantitative, computable subtexts: competition, employment, product and again control are deemed virtuous for the ‘entrepreneurial citizen’. The lost ethos of autonomous critique, inspired by love in Castoriadis’ pedagogic scheme, is de-valued, de-personalised and effectively de-commissioned. Finally, Nilsen’s analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut illustrates the outcome of extreme wealth inequality and a switch from ‘productive capitalism’ (growth) to ‘finance capitalism’ (no growth). This is demonstrably a grand repetition of deteriorating trust, consciousness and intelligence that sets up the apparently imminent, unavoidable descent into despotism and dictatorship.

But democracy’s shallow grave may not be dug yet. If you’re prepared to bury your head in the text and not the ground, you can find some genuinely useful arguments here.  For example, Cochrane’s frankly excellent reading of capitalism as ‘the valuation of control’ provides a strong theoretical case for competing to command assets socially. Similarly Straume’s first essay shows that depoliticization rests on the inability to provide ‘sufficiently robust meaning’, such that teaching critical thinking to every citizen becomes a political as well as an educational mission.

‘Depoliticization’ is not directly addressed in every essay; for some it remains at the side. However, the papers overlap each other well enough to be stitched together with a good narrative, and so the eight authors cover the theme well. Collectively, they delve deep into capitalism’s depoliticizing traits, often working at the level of language and meaning. There are some quite fascinating technical constructions offered in explanation of unconscious or unobvious shifts, such as: controlled ‘free markets’; consumption determined by production; or money, power and control commodified for accumulation. There are also references to more popular economics (Stiglitz and Soros for example) and the odd graph (not listed in the contents) to explain relevant numeric data.

Given their intensity and density, some of the essays are wonderfully clear although in at least two, the author’s purpose or line of thought becomes obscured; whether by poor writing or poor translation is unclear. More of a practical problem was the lack of an index; while the use of footnotes rather than endnotes means locating a cited source requires endless flicking.

But the only real issue was in terms of a personal take on ideas. For me the capitalist paradigm of ‘growth’ appears to be accepted without question, despite its physical impossibility. Moreover, there was a tendency to dismiss ‘logic’ or ‘evidence’ too readily, while quantity always seemed subordinate to quality. I would have liked to have seen these points more clearly and fully discussed, not lost in the background as ‘value-neutral’ givens. But then, this is not so much a criticism of the work as a rejoinder to the discussion; which the authors would surely welcome.

Die Versprachlichung des Sakralen: The Transformation of the Authority of the Sacred into Secular Political Deliberation in Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action

Taking Weber’s thesis in consideration, it seems difficult to uphold Habermas’ thesis about a happy transformation of the sacred into deliberation. The consequence is that morality can only be successful in so far as the validity claims of communicative ethics can be institutionalized in modern society without any reference to holiness. This seems also to be the general conclusion in Habermas’ work – ironically apart from his theory of secularization.

Cornelius Castoriadis’ theory of the imaginary institution and Claude Lefort’s theory of the empty place of the political as a new insecure moral ground for modern society are presented together as an alternative theory of secularization which can serve as a new framework for Habermas’ theory of communicative ethics and deliberative politics in modern society.


  • Die Versprachlichung des Sakralen 

It has been astonishing to observe over the last decade a growing interest for religion not only in more or less premodern societies around the world, but also in the western world. The many theories about secularization seem to have been shocked by this reappearance of religion and this can give a good reason to reconsider what could be a common ground for a modern secular society. Here I find the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ thesis about die Versprachlichung des Sakralen, the linguistification of the sacred, especially interesting, because Habermas has formulated an optimistic theory about how the sacred could be safeguarded in a harmonious transformation into deliberation in modern society. By discussing this theory the aim should be to try to understand why secular society has not been safeguarded from discussions of religion such as has been the case in the last decade.

In connection with his development of the theory of communicative action, Habermas claims that the sacred is transformed in a positive way and can take the form of free deliberation in society (Habermas 1981, II: 118 ff.; Habermas 1989, II, 77 ff.). Habermas speaks in this connection about die Versprachlichung des Sakralen. The thesis is that the authority which could be found in religion, and which is of fundamental significance for the integration of pre-modern societies, is taken over by modern society in forms of deliberation.

Habermas develops this thesis in a discussion of Durkheim’s religious-sociological considerations about the transformation from mechanical to organic solidarity. Durkheim indicates this transformation of the authority of law from unconditional, which is exercised through punishment, to contractual, which is exercised through debate, proceedings and compromise. Habermas interprets this transformation of law in saying that the contract represents a linguistic transformation of law that has similarities with the linguistic transformation of the authoritative character of religions in modern society. But so far as I can see, this argument is not valid because we cannot compare religion and civil law in this way. Law can be compared to religion because law in different ways has its origin in religion. But this argument cannot be turned around. Religion cannot be explained by law. I should like to add that, in my opinion, Durkheim is not the most interesting of the classical sociologists with regard to religious-sociological considerations, because he is mostly occupied with primitive religions, which is the case in his main work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Durkheim 1960: 67 ff.; Durkheim 1995: 45 ff.).

Habermas would not have been able to make the same analysis if he had taken his point of departure in Max Weber’s religious-sociological investigations, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, which in my opinion are much more qualified and differentiated than Durkheim’s sociology of religion (Weber 1988). Weber studied most forms of religions to find out what significance they have had for the integration of different societies. Weber’s conclusion is that the essential significance of religion in society is to give an explanation of how the divine, and in that sense God’s world, can be just when at the same time injustice is dominant in society (Weber 1988a: 242; 571 – 573.). Religion has had the significance to give a solution to this problem of theodicy in all forms of society so that social injustice did not disrupt social integration. The Judaic and Christian religions have here a special status compared to other religions, because the theodicy problem in these traditions is displaced into a demand for a realization of justice in society. This religious claim of social justice is later secularized and integrated in the European tradition of jurisprudence.

  • Weber’s theory of secularization

Weber discusses the question of secularization in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber 1988b; Weber 1995). He shows in this analysis that the sacred, the absolute authority of religion, is dissolved in the secularization of European culture and that we therefore have lost the relation to religious authority. This is a much more interesting thesis than Durkheim’s thesis. It is also this thesis of Weber which is the real challenge for Habermas and which he discusses throughout his theory of communicative action. Therefore, we also find later on in Habermas’ analysis of the linguistic transformation of the sacred a discussion where Habermas relates directly to Weber’s theory of secularization, rationalization and differentiation of the occidental culture (Habermas 1981, II: 140; Habermas 1989, II, 92). Here Habermas, in the spirit of Weber, points out that neither occidental science nor art can be the heir of religion. The occidental science is founded upon the criteria of objectivity and art is founded upon the criteria of subjective taste.

According to Habermas, it is only communicative-oriented morals that are able to replace the authority of religion (Habermas 1981, II: 140; Habermas 1989, II, 92). However, this is not valid from Weber’s religious-sociological perspective. According to Weber, the authority of the sacred is dissolved through the secularization of modern society. This is the reason why Weber, in the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, concludes that we in the occidental culture are dominated by the technical-instrumental rationality because we no longer have a reference to the sacred, which at the end is necessary to uphold morality in any society (Weber 1988b: 202 ff.; Weber 1995: 180 ff..). The paradox is that Habermas follows Weber in this thesis, although he does not follow Weber in his analysis where he, as mentioned, tries to rescue the authority of the sacred in a new secularized form through his reading of Durkheim’s religious-sociological work.

With this background, I will try to sum up my own interpretation. Habermas’ first critique of Weber, which formed the starting point for all of Habermas’ analyses in his theory of communicative action, was that Weber had too narrow an understanding of the rationalization of the occidental culture, because he confounded the potentials of the cultural rationalization with the technical-instrumental rationalization that has taken place historically. I do not only follow Habermas in this critique of Weber; I try to strengthen it because I think that the occidental culture has also been historically rationalized in a communicative direction through historical events such as the Renaissance, the Protestant reformations in their various forms, and through political reformations and revolutions such as the British Glorious Revolution and the French Revolution. Weber does not take these forms of communicative rationalization into regard in his understanding of occidental culture; he is only concerned with the technical-instrumental rationalization. On this point, I think Habermas is right in his critique of Weber. However, I follow Weber in his theory of rationalization of the occidental culture in the sense that I think Weber is right in pointing out that the authority of the sacred is dissolved in this process of rationalization, which could also be called a process of secularization. The question is now what the consequences are for the understanding of the authority and validity of communicative ethics.

The question of the validity of communicative ethics depends on the rational communication in which there can be given good reasons for a specific moral opinion. This is a philosophical problem that Habermas to my mind has treated in a persuasive way. However, the problem is that good reasons are not enough. Habermas sees correctly that in moral questions there is also a problem of authority and he tries to solve this problem through his reading of Durkheim’s religious sociology. But if we follow Weber, the question is whether communicative ethics can acquire an authority in modern society that corresponds to the authority that religions have in pre-modern societies. In this connection, I think Habermas has too widespread an understanding of religion in pre-modern society. Habermas has the understanding that religion in general could give an immediate authority in pre-modern society. But to my mind this is not the case. We have to take into consideration that the authority of religion in pre-modern society was not a free-floating authority. On the contrary, it was mediated through the practice in religious institutions, first of all through cult and worship and secondly through theology in higher forms of religion. Therefore, the authority of religion was not free-floating but bound to institutions in pre-modern society. In the spirit of Durkheim we could even say that it is the institution that gives the authority to religion.

The consequence of this is that communicative action and communicative ethics should be seen in relation to institutions in the same way. From a sociological perspective the decisive point is whether communicative ethics can be institutionalized in modern society, which means the same as whether the institutions of modern society can take such a form that they can mediate communicative ethics in practice.

  • A tragic theory of secularization

The validity of communicative ethics depends upon a philosophical point of view on the tenability of the validity claims. But from a sociological perspective, this is not sufficient. Here the question is whether communicative ethics can be institutionalized in the same way as the authority of the sacred became institutionalized in religion in pre-modern societies. So far as I can see, this is also the line Habermas follows and which he tries to develop in the continuation of his theory of communicative action. But if we do not accept Habermas’ linguistic transformation of the sacred, which I, as previously mentioned, do not, then the consequence for the sociological understanding of communicative ethics is that the claim of its institutionalization is radicalized. Modernity has only a linguistic reference to itself; there are no other references. This internal self-reference can only be upheld if the philosophical validity claims can find their place in practice in the institutions of society.

Habermas presents his thesis about the linguistic transformation of the sacred as a harmonious theory of secularization and therefore it has been an easy target for his critics. However, if we follow Weber in his religious-sociological considerations of modernity, we reach a tragic theory of secularization that poses the real problem that the social ethical challenge consists in securing the institutionalization of the validity claims of communicative ethics in modern society.

The consequence is that Habermas’ theory of die Versprachlichung des Sakralen should be placed in an alternative theoretical framework. In this context, it can be fruitful to look at the philosophers Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort who have pointed at an alternative theory of secularization where they emphasize the imaginary of the political as an alternative to the imaginary of the sacred as the normative ground for modern democratic society.

  • Castoriadis – The imaginary institution of society

Cornelius Castoriadis developed the concept of the imaginary in his major work The Imaginary Institution of Society (Castoriadis 1975; 1987). Castoriadis defines the concept of the imaginary in this way:

The imaginary of which I am speaking is not an image of. It is the unceasing and essentially undetermined (social-historical and psychical) creation of figures/forms/images, on the basis of which alone there can ever be a question of ‘something’. What we call ‘reality’ and ‘rationality’ is its works. …… What I term elucidations is the labor by means of which individuals attempt to think about what they do and to know what they think. This, too, is a social-historical creation. The Aristotelian division into theoria, praxis and poiesis is derivative and secondary. History is essentially poiesis, not imitative poetry, but creation and ontological genesis in and through individuals’ doing and representing/saying. This doing and this representing/saying are also instituted historically, at a given moment, as thoughtful doing or as thought in the making (Castoriadis 1975: 7–8; Castoriadis 1987: 3 – 4).

According to Castoriadis, society is not only in a permanent historical creation but also in a permanent historical creation of imagination, which forms the ground for a following possibility of creation of objectivity, meaning, etc. that have to be interpreted. Castoriadis speaks of elucidations (élucidation), an enlightenment that must be understood in a hermeneutical sense, which harmonizes well with the fact that he takes his phenomenological approach to the interpretation of history from Heidegger. Thus, the imaginary is a critical hermeneutical interpretation of the social, an interpretation (une élucidation) that takes place ultimately in the political as a project (un projet politique). According to Castoriadis, the political is the ultimate horizon of interpretation for the social and societal.

The important thing is that Castoriadis’ definition of the imaginary can be understood as something historically created, which is to be interpreted through critical hermeneutics. The political forms the general horizon of understanding for hermeneutics. Thus, the political becomes an approach to the interpretation of the social and, secondarily, forms the basis for the interpretation of political institutions in a larger interpretation of social life.

In French, there is a clear linguistic distinction between the political (le politique) and politics (la politique), which is a limited form of action within particular institutions and systems in society (Interview with Marcel Gauchet, Philosophie Magazine N°7). In modern Anglo-American political science, this distinction is, for the most part, lost or maintained as a distinction between political philosophy and empirical political science. The problem with this approach is that the political then loses its meaning as a social fact that is generally determinative for politics, and that political science then loses its relation to the determinative horizon of understanding within the political.

The central point is that Castoriadis’ understanding of the creation of the imaginary in the form of the political can be seen as a competing concept to Weber’s concept of the sacred. In this connection it should be emphasized that according to Castoriadis, it is only in the Antique democratic city-state and later on in the modern democratic state that politics is conceptualized and, therefore, it is in the Antique democratic city-state that the political historically first is constituted. This coincides with the fact that it is only the democratic city-state and later on modern democracies that have freedom as the central focal point. In Castoriadis’ perspective history has mostly been dominated by totalitarian states and societies.

  • Lefort – … from the speech of power to the power of speech

This is also the premise of Claude Lefort’s analysis that most societies in history are of a totalitarian character and that the democratic city-states in antiquity and the democratic states in modern times form an exception or a breach with the dominance of totalitarianism. Lefort develops his ideas in a critique of the totalitarian Eastern European societies and states, and he uses the French Revolution as an important historical example of the transition from a totalitarian society to a free society.

What is important in Lefort’s analysis of the French Revolution is that the prince as the incarnation of the totalitarian state is replaced through the revolution by “un lieu vide”, an empty place (Lefort 1986b: 27; Lefort 1988b: 17 f.). Whereas power in the totalitarian state is substantial as an incarnation in the prince, it can only be representative and symbolic in the democratic state, because this lieu vide cannot be occupied substantially. In this way, a new symbolic order is constituted in which democratic society is instituted as a society without a body (sans corps), in which the organic totality in the form of the prince is brought to an end (Lefort 1986b: 28; Lefort 1988b: 18). Democratic society thus becomes a society that, from a philosophical point of view, is in permanent incertitude, because it can never have any real substantial definition. Any definition can only stand as long as it is not made problematic.

This is especially clarified in Lefort’s analysis in the essay ‘Interpreting Revolution within the French Revolution’, that the empty place, le lieu vide, presents the fundamental change in the imaginary of society from the regime of the powers word to the spoken words power, or with Lefort’s word: “But whereas it was once the speech of power which ruled, it is now the power of speech” (Lefort 1986c: 134; Lefort 1988c: 110).

It is this idea that provides the foundation for the understanding that language is the ground of democracy, insofar as it is the essence of language that any statement can only acquire validity by being made problematic. We can say that Habermas develops the idea in Lefort’s political philosophy in a differentiated way including the whole problem of practice and institutions in a modern democratic society. It is Lefort’s paradoxical political-philosophical thesis on permanent incertitude as the cohesive binding in modern society that makes it clear that it is only the possibility of criticism that can lead to the constitution of a morally founded order in modern society. The moral order in modern society is paradoxical; it cannot have a substantial character relating to the sacred or something similar as the moral order has been understood throughout most of history, including our own time. This moral order can only exist in modern society through the possibility for criticism – thus, the moral order cannot ultimately be defined but must be kept open in the sense that it always is in the process of being defined.

It is this abstract definition that we see play out in modern democratic society. Governments are changed regularly, presidents only hold office for limited periods and laws are reformulated when necessary. From a substantive moral and political point of view, this must all seem irrational and reprehensible. But the rationality consists of the fact that le lieu vide has replaced the substantive and, therefore, it would be irrational and totalitarian from this point of view to refer to a positive substantive morality. Norms are constituted by raising questions as to their validity.

  • The union of ethics and politics

Here we find the mediation between Lefort and Habermas. The central point in Habermas’ work is similar to Lefort’s, namely that language is constituting society and in that sense is its fundamental institution. Society has to be understood through language. This is the way whereby Habermas gives the key to understanding the mediation between ethics and politics. Ethics and politics become the two sides of one and the same matter.

Communicative ethics is a Kantian form of language-ethics in which it is possible in positive terms to determine the criteria for action. But Habermas goes beyond Kant’s ethics in three ways. Firstly, in Kant’s ethics, there is an impassable distinction between, on the one hand, the intelligible world, in which the free will and duty in the categorical imperative is found; and, on the other hand, the phenomenal world, which is dominated by desire, subjective motives and institutions (Habermas 1991: 20 f). In communicative ethics, this distinction is mediated through the common use of language. Secondly, communicative ethics transgresses through the public discussion the inner Kantian monologue about the maxims for action. Thirdly, the Kantian problem of the reasonable justification of ethics is transformed into a problem of universal argumentation in dialogue with the other.

The central thing is that discourse ethics is consolidated in the immediate use of language, and that it is not possible to transcend this usage because language is the fundamental instance which is simultaneously used in an immediate sense.

This leads us to the discussion of politics, which according to Habermas is also based on the immediate linguistic practice in the public sphere. This understanding represents a discourse-theoretical transformation of the Kantian understanding of politics. There is in this understanding of politics a moral dimension insofar as the ethical maxims should provide the basis for the general law. However, whereas Kant’s morals are bound to individual reason, morals in discourse ethics are bound to public deliberation where maxims are determined, which should be the basis for common law. In this way the same problems in Kant’s understanding of politics find their solution as in his understanding of ethics. These are the contradiction between the idealistic and the phenomenological perspective, the transgression of the monologue and finally the problem of the justification of norms. Following this, politics can, according to Habermas, be determined as a public deliberation between the implicated parties about problems which concern them all, and as a determination of the maxims which should be the basis for determination of the common law. There is in this way an inner connection between ethics and politics that makes them into the two sides of one and the same matter. On the one hand, ethics cannot be sustained without politics because ethical deliberation must take place between people in the public sphere, and this is also the determination of politics. On the other hand, politics can only be sustained on the background of the discussion of the maxims that underlie the common law, and this is also the determination of ethics. The public sphere is the common meeting place for ethics and politics because both ethics and politics demand the possibility of public deliberation.

  • Bifurcation – negation – validity claims

The public sphere is constituted through the immediate and free public dialogue between people. It is the use of language that constitutes the public sphere, and there is no public sphere except through the use of language. However, the public sphere can be institutionalized. That means that a possibility can be secured for a public dialogue in advance. This is the precondition for politics and political institutions in modern society insofar as there could not be any politics without a public sphere. This is an abstract ideal type in the Weberian sense, which can be further developed in a philosophical, sociological, political-scientific and historical perspective.

The essential matter is to maintain the fundamental unity between ethics and politics, which in principle cannot be divided. This is the positive Kantian perspective. This is broken up in practice, when we take the Hegelian perspective. Modern society, according to Hegel, is bifurcated (Entzweiung), which has the consequence that moral unity cannot be sustained. However, this principle does not abolish the close connection between ethics and politics but it makes the connection more differentiated and complicated. The public sphere can no longer be sustained in the singular. In practice, it takes the form of a plurality of voices that cannot form a harmonious symphony and where it is not consensus but dissent that dominates. Therefore, the public sphere and critical discussion should be viewed as existing together in modern society.

Habermas himself is aware of this and speaks in several works about das Nein-sagen-Können, i.e. about the possibility to negate, the determinate negation, and try out the validity of a proposition (Habermas 1981, II, 113 ff.; Habermas 1989, II, 73 ff.; Habermas 1992: 394, 515; Habermas 1996: 324; 427). However, the principle of negation does not suspend the Hegelian bifurcation. The consequence is that it is not possible from a sociological and a political-scientific perspective to retain the thought of consensus as the fundamental condition for politics in modern society. However, this is not the essential point. The essential point is that politics has its centre in the dialogues taking place in the many public spheres and that it is possible from a philosophical perspective to test the validity of a statement. This represents a negative reading of Kant and Habermas, which aims at retaining the validity claims that are the fundamental crux of the matter in their political philosophies. This negative reading of Kant’s and Habermas’ political philosophies is not in principle suspended by the reality principle, such as it is represented in the traditions of sociology and political sciences. In these traditions, politics must be regarded by necessity as a positive concrete matter, which is subject to the reality principle insofar as praxis is bound to positive action. Nevertheless, the validity claims are not sustained by the reality principle. They constitute the instance that makes it possible to justify human action in the perspective of the reality principle.

In this way we reach an understanding of politics that contains both a reality principle, in the form of the linguistic praxis under the conditions that are given in modern society, and a philosophical principle, which concerns the questioning of the validity of this praxis. The concept of praxis must by necessity be a positive determination; the concept of validity must by necessity be a negative determination. Therefore, there must by necessity be a contradiction in politics between the positive and the negative determinations, which neither can nor should be dissolved. It is fatal only to regard politics under the perspective of the reality principle, and it is an illusion only to regard politics under the perspective of negation, without any relation to the reality principle. It is necessary all the time to take both perspectives into consideration when we deliberate about politics. We have to have both a Kantian and a Hegelian perspective on politics all the time. This is possible in Habermas’ political philosophy.

  • Civil society

Habermas’ political philosophy is fundamentally a Kantian political philosophy, insofar as his fundamental problem is to discuss the possibility to raise the validity claims for moral and political action, which he imagines can be done through free deliberation between the implicated parties. The great problem arises when the Hegelian perspective is introduced, where Habermas has to explain how such a deliberation can take place in modern society. It could be said that Habermas introduces a communicative transformation of the Hegelian perspective. Habermas points, like Hegel, at the decisive significance of civil society for moral order in modern society. In civil society the citizens can form associations in which they can discuss their common business. Hegel relates civil society to these associations, whereas Habermas has a much broader concept of civil society, which contains many different forms of associations, societies, unions, organizations, and so on. However, at the same time he also restricts the concept of civil society, insofar as he has a tendency to regard state and economic reproduction of society from a pure systemic perspective, as he describes in his theory of communicative action.

It is not appropriate to restrict the concept of civil society in this way, because a large part of the interaction in modern society, in which state and economics have a great influence, is excluded. This concept of civil society excludes the many institutions in a modern welfare society such as schools, health care, childcare, care of the elderly, and so on, which are organized by states and municipalities, and economic institutions that also have a central role in this connection. Therefore, I work with the broadest possible concept of civil society, which not only contains the institutions that are organized immediately by citizens, but also institutions that are mediated through the state and economy insofar as they are related to the immediate life of the citizens. This concept can be claimed when we, in accordance with Habermas, focus on the public sphere as the centre of civil society, in that it is more the form of communication than the function that is essential for the determination of the institutions in civil society.

Civil society is characterized by a plurality of communication in a plurality of public spheres which all relate to the immediate life of the citizens. This interaction includes not only social movements and associations of citizens, but also state-organized institutions and corporations, insofar as they all play their role in the citizens’ communication in the public sphere. Herewith is raised the old Hegelian problem of whether it could be possible to sum up this variety of communications in the many public spheres in a common morality.

Hegel tried to solve the problem by saying that it should be the state that mediates the contradictions in civil society. The state was therefore seen as being prior to civil society. However, this had the consequence that there could be a tendency in Hegel’s concept of the state to disregard the interaction between state and civil society, and to focus instead on the sovereignty of the state in relation to civil society. This is the reason why Hegel’s concept of the state has often been regarded as a totalitarian concept. However, Hegel is right in saying that the state is prior to civil society in the sense that there could not be a civil society without a state. The problem is whether it could be possible to create mediation between civil society and state.

According to Habermas, it is through the political institutions of democratic society that the many discussions in the public spheres of civil society can be mediated to political decisions. Habermas speaks in his chief work concerning legal philosophy, Between Facts and Norms, about ‘sluices’ through which the deliberations in civil society can be mediated and transformed to decisions in the political institutions (Habermas 1992: 431 ff; Habermas 1996: 356). However, Habermas is not able to give a conclusive solution to the Hegelian problem of meditation between civil society and the state. On the one hand, the deliberations in civil society should only seek to influence the political institutions. In that sense, Habermas’ understanding of civil society relates very much to Hegel’s. But there is no necessity in this influence. On the other hand, the political institutions can only be representative through procedures which are acceptable to all parties in society (Habermas 1992: 449 ff.; Habermas 1996: 371 ff.). Finally, it seems that we are confronted with the same bifurcation as was thematized by Hegel. Therefore, it is not possible to say that there should be any necessary positive mediation of moral discourses that can constitute a real substantial social morality in civil society.

  • Testing deliberation as the form of morality in modern society

The question now is what the consequence of this could be. This is the central problem in the discussion of social morality and the solution, as mentioned, cannot be a positive substantial social morality. We here come back to the problem of how we should interpret Kant’s ethics. One way is to interpret it in positive terms as an attempt to constitute positive norms. However, it seems as if this way is not passable. The other possibility is to read Kant’s ethics in negative terms as a critical ethics, where the crux of the matter is the possibility to test the normative validity of the maxims of an action. This is in my opinion the right way to read Kant, and it is the same way that we should consider Habermas’ communicative ethics. This should also be read critically as the possibility to test the validity of the normative maxims for an action. The consequence is that it is decisive that the institutions of civil society and the political institutions take such a form that it is possible in praxis to have a testing deliberation about the normative maxims for an action. In this connection it becomes decisive that there are public spheres in each institution where such critical deliberations can be raised. It is not possible to constitute a positive substantial moral in society. But it should be possible under the aforementioned conditions to test critically the validity of the normative maxims, if there is sufficient freedom in the public spheres of the institutions to raise the validity claims in relation to dominant discourses and preconceived opinions. For this reason ethics in society can only be secured indirectly by the constitution of the conditions which are necessary for the critical test of the validity claims.

On the immediate level, we can here refer to Kant, who ascribes the individual with the capability to ask the reasons for the validity which lie at the root of the determination of social norms. We have to start here, because this is the precondition for posing the question of validity. On the next level there is the possibility that more people can question the validity of the maxims, which form the basis for common action. However, here we are still at a level that does not necessarily have any influence on the public discussions in society. The problem is whether these deliberations can become public and take their place in the political institutions in democratic society.

It is evident that the form that politics and political institutions take should be understood positively at first. The social must always be understood in a positive way. But the characteristic of the political institutions and the political system is that they cannot only be understood in a positive way, because they have to be legitimized. The question of legitimization always concerns the validity of the political action in the institutions. Here, we come back to the problem of a critical reading of Kant. According to Kant, political institutions are legitimate insofar as there is a fair chance to participate. This does not necessarily mean that political interaction in the institutions takes an ethical form. According to Kant, we have to make a distinction between ethics and politics (Kant 1966: RL § 43 – §49, p. 311 – 318). Therefore it is not possible to claim that there should be a necessary positive connection between ethics and politics. The consequence is that ethics cannot be directly secured in a positive way in the political institutions. This does not mean that it should not be possible to sustain ethics in the political institutions; but there is not necessarily an internal positive connection between ethics and politics. The connection between ethics and politics can only be created indirectly through the possibility of questioning political action from an ethical point of view. However, this demands that there is a real possibility of raising such a question. According to Kant, this should be possible, and Habermas is of the same opinion. However, we have to take into regard that this is a political and philosophical claim that cannot necessarily be argued from the perspective of political science and sociology. In reality, politics takes its own institutional forms, where it is not deliberation but power which is in the centre. This is the general opinion in political science and sociology. The discussion is whether legal order can be understood by itself or whether it necessarily implies a form of legitimization. As long as we regard the political institutions from a positive perspective, they can be regarded as a part of the legal order, which can be seen as a self-sustaining institutional arrangement without need of further legitimization. This is Hegel’s and Weber’s perspective. But when conflicts arise, this perspective becomes insufficient. It becomes necessary to question the legitimacy and thereby the validity of the political order. This is Kant’s and Habermas’ perspective. Such a questioning does not only concern the political order but also the ethical validity of political action.

  • The open society and the totalitarian temptation

Herewith we return to the problem of whether a critical ethics can be institutionalized. So far as I can see, this is not possible insofar as this would mean the same as that critical ethics could be regarded as a pre-given substantial ethics, which could be determined in positive terms. However, this does not have the consequence that the critical ethical investigation is excluded from the political institutions. On the contrary, it is part of the understanding of the political institutions in a democratic society that they should be a constituent part of the public sphere. This gives the possibility to formalize the rights to question the political institutions, and this is the case in a modern democratic constitutional state. However, we again have to take into regard that such rights are formal rights and therefore do not necessarily say anything about how they function in practice. In this connection Kant would say that it is not possible to go further from a philosophical point of view. In Habermas’ perspective, things are different because he takes Hegel’s perspective, in which the political culture is essential for the understanding of the political institutions in society.

The conclusion is that there should be a close relationship between ethics and politics in modern society. However, this connection can only be secured indirectly through the formalization of civil rights to take part in political deliberation and through the cultivation of these rights in the public spheres of society. Therefore, a philosophical discussion of the relation between ethics and politics is insufficient; at the same time we have to introduce the empirical perspective of political sciences and sociology. It is not enough to have the correct Kantian idea; we must conclude with Hegel that ideas have to be well-founded in social and institutional practice in society. Habermas has created this mediation between Kant’s and Hegel’s perspectives, which should be interpreted critically.

Here we meet the difficult problem which can contribute to explain why religion anew has become a central topic in the discussion of moral norms in modern society. In modern society, it is not possible to present the positive mediation of norms that could give a justification of positive substantial norms. Therefore one could say that there is a fundamental normative insecurity in modern society, or along Claude Lefort’s understanding, an insecure ground of an empty normative space, that can be upheld only as empty so long a time as there is in praxis a living that does not end discussion about norms and their justification, and concerns all forms of normative problems in democratic society. In praxis, it can be difficult to fulfil such a living discussion in a modern democratic society and therefore there can always be a temptation to revitalize substantial norms grounded in tradition and religion. From a modern perspective, this represents what Lefort would describe as an attempt to reinstall a totalitarian formation of society, which falls behind the French Revolution.


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