Guide Indeterminacy and Society

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The issue is that the basic rationality that makes sense of or fits individual choice in the simplest contexts of choosing against nature does not readily generalize to contexts in which individuals are interacting with other individuals. The basic rationality that says more resources are preferable to less is indeterminate for the more complicated context, which is almost the whole of our lives outside the casino and the lottery.

Typically, the central task in strategic interactions is obtaining the best possible outcome for oneself. Unfortunately, in many social contexts I cannot simply act in a way that determines my own outcome. I can choose only a strategy, not an outcome. All that I determine with my strategy choice is some constraints on the possible array of outcomes I might get.

To narrow this array to a single outcome requires action from you and perhaps many others. I commonly cannot know what is the best strategy choice for me to make unless I know what strategy choices others will make. But if all of us can know what all others are going to do, then it is not coherent to say that thereafter we can alter our choices in the light of that knowledge. This is the form of indeterminacy at issue in this book: indeterminacy that results from strategic interaction. Interactive choice as represented descriptively in game theory is often indeterminate for each individual chooser.

For an individual chooser in a moment of choice, this indeterminacy is not a failure of reason by the chooser; the indeterminacy is in the world because it follows from the mismatch of the preferences of all those in the interaction of the moment. Problems of a partially related kind were characterized by C. Waddington [] , 17 , in a sadly neglected book, as stochastic. This word, which means, roughly, "probabilistic," comes from a Greek root that means "proceeding by guesswork" or, more literally, "skillful in aiming.

As a remarkably clear and varied example of the problems at issue, I will often discuss problems of vaccination against a major disease. That range of problems has the attractive feature that it, in its simpler forms, should not be very controversial, either pragmatically, causally, or morally. Especially because it is often not morally controversial, it will be very useful in exemplifying the nature of stochastic policy problems, including many, such as nuclear deterrence in which accidents could have happened , that are also troubled with strategic interaction.

For stochastic problems of individual choice, we can readily reduce our choices to their expected values; and then we can select more rather than less. Stochastic collective choices or policies commonly entail losses for some and gains for others, so that we can choose unproblematically from expected value only if we do not know in advance who will be the losers and gainers. To see the peculiarly stochastic nature of many collective choice problems that we face, consider the program of polio vaccination before it was eradicated as a disease in the wild in North America that is, outside certain laboratory stores of the virus.

The facts are roughly these. We vaccinate millions, including almost the entire population of children.

Review: Indeterminacy and Society | Mind | Oxford Academic

Many of these would die and many would be permanently, even hideously, crippled if not vaccinated. Among those vaccinated, a very small number suffer serious cases of paralytic polio. There is no question that fewer are harmed by vaccinating than by not vaccinating the population. Our strategic action is to protect people, but among the outcomes that could follow from our action, we also harm some people, some of whom might never have got polio if not vaccinated or even if no one had been vaccinated.

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When we choose an action or a policy, this is often the structure of it. We have some chance of doing harm and some chance of doing good in the unavoidable sense that in order to do something good we must risk doing something bad. Sometimes this is for reasons of the nature of the world, as in the case of vaccination. But at other times it is for reasons of the nature of strategic interaction. I choose, in a sense, a strategy, not an outcome. Then I get an outcome that is the result of the strategy choices of others in interaction with my choice. These two classes of problems, strategic interaction and stochastic patterns of outcomes, have a common feature, which is the central issue of this book.

They make indeterminate what an action or a policy is. In philosophical action theory, the actions are simple ones such as flipping a switch to turn on a light. In real life, our most important actions are not so simple. They are inherently interactions. We have reasons for taking our actions, but our reasons may not finally be reflected in the results of our actions even if hope for specific results is our reason for our choice of actions.

In three contexts I argue that taking indeterminacy into account up front by making it an assumption helps us to analyze certain problems correctly or to resolve them successfully. In these cases, using theories that ignore the indeterminacy at issue can lead to clouded understandings, even wrong understandings of the relevant issues. One of these contexts is the hoary problem of the iterated prisoner's dilemma and what strategy is rational when playing it.

The second is the real world prisoner's dilemma of nuclear deterrence policy that, one hopes, is now past. The third is the great classical problem of how we can justify institutional actions that violate honored principles. For example, public policy is often determined by a cost-benefit analysis, which entails interpersonal comparisons of utility. The people who do these policy analyses are commonly economists who eschew interpersonal comparisons as metaphysically meaningless. Such comparisons are one theoretical device for avoiding indeterminacy.

Log In Sign Up. Jeff Klooger. Castoriadis sometimes fails to recognize the full implications of his own rejection of ontological determinism, and so ends up proposing a far too deterministic and homogeneous model of social types. Nonetheless, when it comes to conceptualizing society, he, like others, tends to concentrate on what gives society its unifying order and orientation. For Castoriadis, social imaginary significations fulfil this unifying function. Social institutions incarnate social imaginary significations. In this way, social imaginary significations create a socio-cultural world.

Castoriadis, There are two reasons why social imaginary institutions create a unified world. It is one world. The singularity of this world reflects the singularity of its source. Social imaginary significations are created by each particular society, and through and with them each particular society creates itself.

It will in each case be the world of that society in the twin senses: it belongs to or goes with that society, and it is the work or creation of that society. Finally, the unity of the social world is guaranteed by the tendency of the world of social imaginary significations and institutions to establish and maintain itself in closure. But it also means being closed to the outside, to the new, the other and alien. Castoriadis, a It is not difficult to see how such a conception of society might represent a barrier to the understanding of external relations between societies and diversity and plurality within a society.

If our understanding of society is based on this conception of a unitary social source and cultural structure, how are we to understand societies that encompass disunity and diversity? This question is a pressing one in our times, when so many existing national societies are multicultural in nature. The question is all the more pressing if our aim is autonomy. How is autonomy to be achieved in these circumstances?

It would seem that the unitary nature of the source of social self-creation is at least partly what provides the basis for the emergence of a collective subject capable of autonomy. But what if the source of social self-creation is not unitary? How are diversity and disunity to be accounted for?

How must they impact upon the aim and projected operation of social autonomy? It is not only the contemporary situation that makes such questions important. All societies encompass diversity and disunity; what differs across history and geography is only the degree to which this is so doubtless also the precise nature of the diversity and disunity, which need not be the same everywhere.


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If our theories of social creation and change are to be useful, they will need to account for this characteristic of real societies. Accounting for the functioning of social wholes without denying the existence of diversity and disunity is a common difficulty. The more keenly we are aware of the reasons for the dilemma, the more we understand that it is not accidental but emerges organically from the problem of accounting for society and sociality, the more difficult extricating ourselves from the dilemma may seem. This problem is common to social theory generally, and its roots extend into the broader problematic of subjectivity, whose history is largely coextensive with modern Western philosophy.

Coherence and Social Self-Creation Our problem is this: how to adequately theorize coherence without tying it to a conception of unity whose implications lead to undesirable theoretical consequences. Wittgenstein is known to have been concerned in his later philosophy with forms of life as the basis for shared understandings. That is not agreement in opinions but in forms of life. Wittgenstein, 88, s Stanley Cavell observes that what Wittgenstein is pointing to is not agreement in the sense of a consensus of opinions.

The idea of agreement here is not that of coming to or arriving at an agreement on a given occasion, but of being in agreement throughout, being in harmony, like pitches or tones, or clocks, or weighing scales, or columns of figures. That a group of human beings stimmen in their language ueberein says, so to speak, that they are mutually voiced with respect to it, that they are attuned top to bottom. It is a condition of either agreeing or disagreeing that we speak the same language, that we can communicate with each other, and thereby make ourselves and our harmonious or conflicting opinions mutually intelligible.

As the euphemistic use of this phrase suggests, it also signifies sharing common objects, recognizing common objects as real and meaningful. If it is true that Castoriadis presents an overly unified vision of society, this is related to the way in which unity is theoretically connected to the issue of coherence.

There is a tendency for this underlying principle to be construed as all-pervading consensus. Castoriadis is not guilty of this, but his account of social coherence does depend on the operation of unitary principles. Consider how he describes the nature of central imaginary social significations. The totality of the social world is constituted by one or a few central imaginary significations. Castoriadis, The role of these central imaginary significations is to create a unified social world. What are we for one another?

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Where and in what are we? What do we want; what do we desire; what are we lacking? What requires emphasis is the fact that this collectivity is understood as constituted by a unified set of such questions and answers. What guarantees social unity is the consistency and unity of these. This need not mean that the collectivity itself is conceived of as unitary. What is crucial is that these different answers constitute a co-ordinated and consistent whole.


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Society is the creator, the author. It defines itself. In both cases, we are dealing with unities. The unity of the former, constituted by the significations themselves and their action, flows from the unity of the latter, the authorial it of the collective anonymous. It, society, tells its story; therefore it can tell one story, whole and self-consistent.

It is a group of human beings defined by the fact — making it one society — that there is one overall institution of society, a social imaginary holding the society together and through which those individuals belong to it. Societies do indeed hang together; they function as consistent wholes. And it is difficult to see how they could exist at all if they did not, at least within a certain degree of tolerance. What is crucial is not so much this discovery of unity, but how this unity is understood. Castoriadis argues that fundamental categories such as unity need to be understood in connection with the reality of fundamental ontological realms, that they acquire their full significance only in the context of their concrete application within such realms.

There is also an underlying identity of these two, since what we are dealing with here is a case of self-creation, which signifies that the creator and the created are, at bottom, one. The philosophical complexities of the idea of self-creation need not detain us here. What matters here is the way unity is conceptualized at each end of this process.

We will need to critically assess each of these unities, attempting to elucidate how unity is understood in each case. We will then explore the implications of these conceptions of unity, and finally we will attempt to show how they might be reconceptualized in a more open manner. As a preliminary conclusion, we can say that in the case of the creative source unity is understood as singularity, whereas in the case of the created result unity is understood as closure.

But what is it that creates and what is it that is created? What sort of thing is society? First, how does Castoriadis understand the creative dimension of society: society as creator? Castoriadis always insists that this creative dimension of society is just that, a dimension, an aspect. It should not be construed as an agency separate from the society which it creates. Castoriadis labels these two dimensions of society as instituting society and instituted society. We will understand the significance of this distinction if we say that society is instituting when and insofar as it creates new institutional forms and society is instituted when and insofar as it maintains and reproduces existing institutional forms.

Instituted society does not therefore stand opposed to instituting society as a passive result. Instituted society is living society, active, productive. Castoriadis, It is clear even from this account that the unity of society is paramount for Castoriadis. We must not view society as divided between instituted and instituting agencies. It is one society. But how is it one if this unity encompasses distinctions such as this? First, we must consider how the instituting, creative dimension is conceived.

Society is self-creating in the way all selfs are. When Castoriadis comes to analyse the self, or the for-itself, he adds society to the list of such entities, alongside the living being and the human psyche. Not only is creation for this ontology and logic a dirty word [The traditional ontology and logic of determinacy. Yet creation, as the work of the social imaginary, of the instituting society…is the mode of being of the social-historical field, by means of which this field is.

Society is self-creation deployed as history. Who creates society? Society does. That is the nub of the idea of social self-creation. There are reasons for doubting that society is a subject, a substance or a cause in any of the traditional understandings of these terms, but to say that society is self-creation is to answer the question Castoriadis implies should not be asked, it is to specify who is creating.

The important thing is that we have answered the question of the source of the creation, of the creative agency. Society is self-creation not the self that creates itself. Society is ceaselessly creating itself; this is how it exists. Self-creation is not one activity amongst others, but the activity by virtue of which society exists at all and always. Nevertheless, as soon as one declares that society is the work of the social imaginary or instituting society, one has identified an agent, a who or what responsible and indispensible for the activity concerned.

It may be that the agent does not exist independently of the activity or prior to it, that, on the contrary, it exists only insofar as that activity continues.

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But this does not eliminate the agency. Notwithstanding contrary indications in his work, this puts Castoriadis in sympathy with our later conclusions here — or vice versa. Most important is the greater indeterminacy of the peculiarly human forms. This confers greater plasticity, but also makes the question of unity more problematic. We explore some of the implications of this below.

For society to exist, it must create itself as a world, a unified whole comprised of integrated parts which are complimentary and presuppose one another, and which act in reciprocal ways due to their shared embodiment of central principles — of social imaginary significations. This world of society is not unchangeable.

Society is always creating and recreating itself, and can do no other. This self-transforming agency of society takes the form either of the collective anonymous or of the autonomous collectivity. In each case we are dealing with a kind of unity. The collective anonymous, the no one, creates its society, and creates it all of a piece, as one self- consistent and coherent world.

The autonomous collectivity acts as an agent of judgement and decision which sits atop the volcano of social creativity. It does not eliminate or absorb the wellspring of social creation, but adjudicates about its products and steers its energies. This collectivity encompasses multiplicity, but endeavours to act in a united manner. It aims for that type and degree of unity necessary for effective self-determination. According to Castoriadis, outside autonomy, societies change largely behind the backs of social actors.

The action of social actors is indispensible; only through their action is change effected. But they do not recognize this. Even if they recognize themselves as immediate and effective agents of change, they nevertheless attribute the change to an extra-social agency as the ultimate and governing source.

Most often, change is rendered invisible. This is achieved by a process of habilitation, where anything new is construed as the same, as a confirmation of tradition. The value of tradition is never challenged by novelty. Tradition is reverenced and preserved, and is guaranteed insofar as the new does not appear as disruption, but as confirmation of it.

Castoriadis calls this type of society heteronomous. What characterizes it - apart from the attribution of social creation to an external source — is the closure of the social world. The absorption of the new by the old is part of this. Closure signifies that the social world is self- sufficient and resistant to alteration. This is achieved by maintaining a system of meaning whereby everything is interpreted according to already existing categories and formulas. Nothing escapes this power to absorb and interpret, to give meaning. Castoriadis, c According to Castoriadis, closure is a characteristic not just of heteronomous societies, but of self-created worlds generally.

The world of the self is essentially closed. In a sense, the living being is a closed ball. We do not enter into the living being. We can bang on it, shock it in some way, but in any event we do not enter into it: whatever we might do, it will react after its own fashion. Whereas previously we were talking about characteristics of a cultural system, now we are talking about the characteristics of the agent itself.

Part of this discrepancy can be removed if we recognize that, as a self- created being, no self can be understood as independent of the world it creates; this world is not really external to the self, but an intrinsic and essential part of it. This explains why Castoriadis maintains that breaking the closure of heteronomous societies still leaves a situation of closure, since any society, like any self, must continue to act and interpret in its own fashion.

What produces closure, in either sense, is the way the created world proceeds from a singular source and is fixed into a unified and self-consistent pattern by that singular source. For Castoriadis, closure in its heteronomous form is not an inevitable destiny for society. The way in which the social world is created can change. What Castoriadis envisages as the autonomous alternative to heteronomous closure is a society that invests itself in a never- ending project of breaking the closure of its world.

Closure remains a permanent risk, and must therefore be challenged and broken again and again by a committed self-interrogation.


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The result is a model in which heteronomous societies are seen as uniformly closed, and the only truly significant variation in the pattern of heteronomous closure is that which occurs with the emergence of the project of autonomy. This produces a flattened picture of human society, and is inadequate for many reasons. What concerns us here is how this understanding creates a vision of society as essentially and always homogeneous with regard to its creative source. The coherence of society must be accounted for, but is it necessary and justifiable to trace that coherence to the origin of the social world in a singular creative source?

Castoriadis cannot provide us with a figure for the mediation between the individual and society. The problem is not mediating between the individual and society. For Castoriadis, the individual is society. The individual is fabricated by and for the society, so there can never be any problem of integrating the individual into society, or accommodating the individual within the social world. Insofar as there is a problem, for Castoriadis it is that of finding a socially viable way of dealing with the asocial constructions of the human psyche.

The solution to this problem is generally a combination of sublimation and repression. No, the problem here is that of accommodating heterogeneity.

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For Habermas the individual represents heterogeneity, and this is why he construes the mediation of the individual and society is a problem. Whether this heterogeneity has its basis in the individual or some other social entity is unimportant. It is the difficulty of theoretically accommodating heterogeneity that is the problem, and this is related to the understanding of social self-creation.

I do not think the answer is the one Habermas proposes, which involves the discovery of a latent rationality embedded in communicative action which is universalizable as a set of principles guiding action. If Castoriadis fails to recognize such plurality adequately, then his work also offers conceptual tools that can aid such recognition. Coupled with an understanding of the self which views all selfs as built upon internal division and alterity, this leads to a conception of the self — social or otherwise — much more amenable to heterogeneity.

If the self presupposes some kind of unity, it is also true that it exhibits and presupposes plurality. No self is simple and homogeneous: none consists of a pure and uniform substance. All selfs are complex, articulated wholes, encompassing internal division and differentiation. This is so for living beings. All organisms are complex wholes, with internal structure and division into parts.