Charles Taylor’s modern social imaginaries

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately of Charles Taylor’s work, particularly his magisterial A Secular Age.

Today – a link to a PDF of his which summarises one of his key ideas: “modern social imaginaries”:

This essay seeks to shed light on both the original and contemporary issues about modernity by defining the self-understandings that have been constitutive of it. Western modernity in this view is inseparable from a certain kind of social imaginary, and the differences among today’s multiple modernities are understood in terms of the divergent social imaginaries involved. This approach is not the same as one that might focus on the ideas as against the institutions of modernity. The social imaginary is not a set of ideas; rather it is what enables, through making sense of, the practices of a society.

So – what are the modern social imaginaries? Let’s take a brief journey through Taylor’s argument. (It’s worth mentioning here Taylor is talking about “the West” – roughly the industrialising nations of north-western Europe and their colonies in the new world, in quite conscious homage to Weber).

Taylor thinks that a new “moral order” emerged in the 17th century in the wake of thinkers such as Grotius and Locke. This new moral order was distinguishable from pre-modern moral orders like that articulated by Plato in The Republic:

The picture of society is that of individuals who come together to form a political entity against a certain preexisting moral background and with certain ends in view. The moral background is one of natural rights; these people already have certain moral obligations toward one another. The ends sought are certain common benefits, of which security is the most important.

This new moral order brings about a change in the way God is envisaged:

The notion that God governs the world according to a benign plan was ancient, even pre-Christian, with roots in Judaism as well as Stoicism. What is new is the way of conceiving his benevolent scheme […] what is added in the eighteenth century is an appreciation of the way in which human life is designed so as to produce mutual benefit. Emphasis is sometimes laid on mutual benevolence, but very often the happy design is identified in the existence of what one might call “invisible hand” factors. By this I mean actions and attitudes that we are “programmed” for, which have systematically beneficent results for the general happiness, even though these are not part of what is intended in the action or affirmed in the attitude. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith has provided us with the most famous of these mechanisms, whereby our search for our own individual prosperity redounds to the general welfare.

This last sentence is worth dwelling on, if only because of the astonishing number of economists who appear unaware of the overtly religious subtext of one of economics most cherished theories – it’s still quite easy to find economists who nowadays think of “the invisible hand” in explicitly secular terms, as for instance the emergent property of markets in equilibrium. Another fascinating factoid: Taylor cites Antoine de Montchrétien as the apparent coiner of the term “political economy.”

Moving on, Taylor argues that what we can see here is the beginning of economic liberalism, and the “the gradual promotion of the economic to its central place, a promotion already clearly visible in the eighteenth century.” Hence, one of the key aspects of the modern social imaginary is the economy. Taylor identifies two more: “the public sphere” and “the practices and outlooks of democratic self-rule.”

So, to sum up, Taylor think that there are three dimensions to the “modern social imaginary”:

  • 1) the liberal economy
  • 2) the public sphere of newspapers, feuilletons and political speech, and
  • 3) the citizen state and civil society more generally

    In a future post, I’ll explore perhaps the most interesting of Taylor’s imaginaries, his ideas of “stranger sociability” and their concomitant expressions in political mobilisation, fashion and sexual expression as means towards personal identity making in modern societies.